Days after dozens of cases of COVID-19 were confirmed at a meat plant in southern Alberta, provincial health and safety investigators conducted an inspection by video call and concluded the plant was safe to remain open.
Now, just under a week after that call, one person is dead and 515 people are sick with COVID-19 due to the outbreak at the Cargill facility near High River, and the union representing the plant’s workers says it’s time for an independent investigation.
The facility announced Monday it will temporarily shut down as soon as it has finished processing the meat already in the plant.
“It’s very, very hard to specifically ascertain what’s going on. They aren’t allowing any visitors to the plant,” said Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW Local 401.
Prior to the temporary closure announcement, employees at the facility had accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation.
Hesse said the shutdown came way too late.
“They knew there was a problem. Why did they wait until somebody died?”
‘There’s something wrong’
The union brought the first 38 cases of COVID-19 at the plant to the attention of media on April 13. Two days later, a Cargill employee recorded a video inspection of the plant to send to a provincial Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) inspector, accompanied by a union shop steward and a worker.
OHS has a mandate to ensure Alberta workplaces are operating in a way that is healthy and safe for employees.
OHS deemed the plant safe.
“When an OHS officer won’t attend the plant and instead does a plant tour by cell phone, that should tell you that there’s something wrong,” Hesse said.
OHS is currently working through the formal process to determine whether to open a fatality investigation, Adrienne South, a spokesperson for the provincial labour minister, said in an email.
“After the first COVID-19 case was identified at Harmony Beef, an intergovernmental business resumption protocol was immediately established for provincially and federally licensed food processing facilities in Alberta,” South said.
“While many food processing facilities have existing pandemic and emergency response plans in place, it was critical to work with all actors involved to bolster their plans and help keep workers safe and guarantee Alberta’s food security.”
South said the live video call wasn’t unique to the Cargill facility, and was done to mitigate risk of exposure to all parties involved due to the pandemic.
The inspection was interactive, with an OHS officer directing the camera if needed to observe employees at their daily duties and video was recorded to be reviewed later, she said.
Direction for mitigation measures at the facility have also been provided by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Alberta Health Services and Alberta Agriculture, the spokesperson said.
200 AHS staff responding to Cargill outbreak
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday that due to the number of people that go in and out of the plant, it’s possible that the virus was spread before mitigation efforts were put in place.
AHS now has a dedicated task force of more than 200 staff responding to the outbreak, and translation services are being used to communicate with workers and their families who speak English as a second language.
Contact tracing is also underway to determine people who may have come in contact with someone who has tested positive, AHS said.
Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, has written a letter to the province’s labour minister requesting both an OHS investigation into the worker’s death and a criminal investigation.
“Given that the workers at the plant and their union begged both you and their employer to suspend operations at the plant more than two weeks ago, it is our contention that managers failed in their duty to ‘prevent bodily harm’ to the worker who died and to the hundreds of [her] coworkers who have become infected,” McGowan wrote.
Video inspection questioned
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley described the single video inspection as a negligent approach to health and safety.
“How can you judge proper working conditions and safety protocols without having stepped onto the worksite? But somehow the minister assured workers and Albertans that he could,” Notley said, referring to a tweet from the agriculture minister on Saturday reassuring Albertans that the plant was safe.
Marichu Antonio is with Action Dignity, a community group working to support Cargill’s 2,000 employees, who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Antonio said the worker who died was a Vietnamese woman in her sixties, and her husband is now being treated in hospital.
“The fear of losing their jobs is very real to them. Plus the fear of what’s going to happen to their family members,” Antonio said.
Five employees at Seasons Retirement Communities in High River have now also tested positive for COVID-19; three of them are married to meat-packing workers at Cargill.
Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said perhaps other meat-packing facilities can learn a lesson from what happened in High River.
“I do believe the plant should’ve idled much sooner, but again I don’t have all the details in place,” he said. “I mean, [more than] 15 per cent of all cases in Alberta are linked to that plant. That is a lot.”
As of Tuesday, JBS meat-packing facility in Brooks had 67 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The plant is staying open.
As of Tuesday, there were 3,095 COVID-19 cases in Alberta.