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Friesen said she understands why masks are flying off the shelves, given rising COVID-19 case numbers across the province and people’s anxieties around the looming back-to-school season. But she said there are real health concerns if farmers can’t access the PPE they need. In addition to the respiratory issues that can be caused by breathing grain dust, farmers face day-to-day hazards from exposure to equipment fumes, fertilizers and other chemicals, and even rodent droppings (which can contain the hantavirus, a severe and sometimes fatal disease).
“Breathing some of these things in is just terrible,” Friesen said. “For us, (mask-wearing) is not optional. You’re not going into the bin without it.”
Not all farmers are having difficulty sourcing PPE. Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Commission, said the problem was actually more severe in the spring, but now it’s a bit of a hit-or-miss situation depending on where you are in the province.
“It was a problem when Covid began, but it’s eased a bit,” Toma said in an email. “Supplies can be rather variable depending on the retailer and the location.”
Seed grower Greg Stamp, who sits on the board of the Alberta Barley Commission and farms near Enchant in southern Alberta, said he feels fortunate to have stockpiled a small supply of masks at his farm.
“So right now we’re ok, but I’ve heard some concerns from a lot of farmers who just can’t get anything at all,” Stamp said. “And even with our N-95s, we tell our people, ‘if it’s not dirty, don’t throw it away. Write your name on it.’ Because we can’t afford to lose any of these.”