April 27, 2020

Employee Illness, Symptoms and Exposures in Food & Ag Facilities: FDA Addresses Workplace Safety During COVID-19

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently provided two separate fact sheets to help food and agricultural businesses address workplace health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first “outlines key steps that food and agriculture employers and workers can take to help stay open [and] prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19.” The second explains the role and uses of different mask types during the emergency.

Fact Sheet 1: Managing COVID-19 Exposures, Symptoms and Diagnoses 

The first Fact Sheet, What to Do if You Have COVID-19 Confirmed Positive or Exposed Workers in Your Food Production, Storage, or Distribution Operations Regulated by FDA, begins by affirming that food and agriculture workers are “the backbone” of the food and agriculture sector, which is an essential national infrastructure. As such, special planning is necessary to support their health and safety. These efforts include “limit[ing], to the extent possible the reintegration of workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain symptom-free in ways that protect the health of the worker, co-workers and the general public.” The Fact Sheet consolidates important recommendations previously issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to maintain the continuity of essential operations if or when workers are exposed to, show symptoms of or are diagnosed with COVID-19.

The first recommendation in this Fact Sheet highlights the importance of “identify[ing] COVID-19 risks and prevention strategies even before having a sick or exposed employee.” It also encourages food and agribusiness facilities to “identify a qualified workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues, help develop plans for implementing infection control procedures, and help assess the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace, including absenteeism at work.”

The Fact Sheet proceeds to list general recommendations and links on issues such as worker proximity, sanitation, temperature checks, contact tracing and continuing operations despite a potential exposure that has not led to symptoms.

The complexity of planning for and responding to worker safety is demonstrated through links to over 20 different sources of suggested practices and recommendations from CDC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), FDA, state and local authorities, and the Food and Beverage Issues Alliance. FDA’s Fact Sheet reinforces the importance of developing and implementing written plans with the assistance of qualified professionals.

For food and agribusiness companies impacted by COVID-19, understanding how broader FDA guidance applies to specific business situations is critical. Legal counsel with an in-depth understanding of FDA regulatory activity can be particularly helpful in coordinating efforts to implement FDA guidance and respond to COVID-19 challenges in real time.

Fact Sheet 2: Respirators, Facemasks and Face Coverings

The other Fact Sheet, Use of Respirators, Facemasks, and Cloth Face Coverings in the Food and Agriculture Sector During Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic,  responds to questions about which respirators, disposable facemasks (such as surgical or medical masks) or cloth face coverings are appropriate in the food and agriculture sector, and summarizes the benefits of each. Consistent with CDC recommendation, the Fact Sheet notes that while the use of simple cloth face coverings and disposable facemasks do not protect workers from COVID-19 infection, they may be helpful for reducing the spread of the virus by droplets from workers who do not know they are infected. FDA advises that cloth masks need to be worn correctly and maintained with at least daily cleaning and that respirators should continue to be used in certain food and agriculture jobs where such masks are required to perform functions involving hazardous contaminants in the air such as gases, particles or chemicals. The Fact Sheet includes helpful diagrams explaining the differences between respirators, disposable facemasks, and cloth face coverings and the appropriate way to wear each.


As the number of cases around the world grows, Faegre Drinker’s Coronavirus Resource Center is available to help you understand and assess the legal, regulatory and commercial implications of COVID-19.

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