N95 Masks: ‘Perfect Storm’ Brewing for Agriculture

Brian German Agri-Business, Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased demand for N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the country.  Some companies have announced they will be retooling their operations to increase the production of the highly sought-after respirators and sanitizing materials to help meet the demand.  However, those efforts have yet reached a point of producing the necessary supplies for the industries that need them.

“I’ve now heard this referenced as sort of ‘the perfect storm’ around personal protective equipment and I think that’s a very accurate description,” said Amy Wolfe, President and CEO of AgSafe.  “Pesticide applications are happening right now, wildfire smoke is an issue that we’re foreseeing when the season changes and obviously the ongoing challenge and need of ensuring that our medical professionals and our first responders have access to PPE.” 

N95 masks

The immediate need for more N95 masks to be used during the application of pesticide materials could be far outweighed once wildfire season begins in the coming months.  The Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) Standards Board recently approved an emergency regulation for wildfire smoke exposure to continue until July.  That rule requires employers to make N95 masks available for all employees if the Air Quality Index reaches 151.  While that rule is set to expire, there are expectations for another similar emergency rule to be put into effect before the deadline.  “What I anticipate that the Standards Board will do is they will see a new proposal – think of it as a complete second separate emergency rule around wildfire smoke conditions.  That process will take place and in my mind, they will ensure that it takes effect prior to this other regulation expiring in July,” Wolfe noted.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S., farm employers were encouraged to stock up on N95 masks before wildfire season began with an understanding that the agricultural industry is going to require a substantial number for their labor force.  Now with the overwhelming demand for the respirators in light of COVID-19, that is no longer an option. Agricultural groups such as the Western Agricultural Processors Association (WAPA) have reached out to Cal/OSHA regarding the issue of meeting the regulatory requirement of providing N95 respirators but have not received any guidance thus far.

“We’re going to be unable to do that this summer given the supply chain is where it is right now.  We don’t see any avenue that gets us there to be able to provide those on a widespread basis,” said Roger Isom, President and CEO of WAPA.  “We’ve called everybody. We’ve got some suppliers telling us ‘not until September’ and that’s if it doesn’t get worse than it already is.” 

SHORTAGE OF OTHER SUPPLIES ALSO AFFECTING AGRICULTURE

The number of N95 masks that are available is not the only concern for the agriculture sector.  Increased pressure on sanitation supplies by the medical community as well as the general public has made it difficult for agricultural operations to meet their needs.  With store shelves absent of many necessary sanitation supplies such as toilet paper and sanitizer, some consumers have begun reaching out to wholesalers and further reducing available supplies.

“Where we were good a month ago, our suppliers are now telling us that ‘we’re two to three weeks out; we may not even have any’ depending on what it is we’re looking for,” Isom noted.  “For example, hand sanitizer right now is almost non-existent on the farm side and even some of the larger supply companies are having a hard time fulfilling toilet paper requests.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is encouraging those who are experiencing issues with accessing PPE and other sanitation supplies to contact their local Office of Emergency Services (OES) branch.  If OES is unable to provide assistance, ag employers are asked to contact CDFA with information as to what supplies are running low and how that will impact the food supply chain.

About the Author

Brian German

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Multimedia Journalist for AgNet West