NDP demands inquiry into Alberta meat plant COVID-19 protocols as Cargill plans reopening

As the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in High River, Alta., gets set to restart its operations, the Opposition NDP is calling for an inquiry into how the coronavirus response was handled at that, and other meat facilities, in Alberta.

Speaking about the deaths on Wednesday, NDP Labour and Immigration Critic Christina Gray said the government dropped the ball in not initiating stricter protocols for workplaces like meat facilities.

Along with Cargill, an outbreak of the virus has also seen hundreds fall ill and one person die at the JBS Foods plant in Brooks. Cases have also popped up at other facilities around the province.

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Gray said on March 6, the NDP called for the UCP to provide funding and staffing to do inspections of workplaces, which she says the government ignored.

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“As the former minister, I’m very well aware of the tight quarters within these plants, and the difficulties with ensuring proper physical distancing measures being taken,” Gray said.

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A month later, workers at the Cargill facility started raising concerns about the safety conditions in the plant, which Gray said “fell on deaf ears.”

“I want to again call on the premier to commit to a full, public inquiry into the handling of these outbreaks,” Gray said.

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“To be clear, I am not, and have not, calling for a public inquiry now. Only a commitment that one will occur once the provincial state of emergency has been lifted.”

1 death connected to Cargill meat plant in High River as plant ‘idles’ processes

Gray also called for the JBS plant to be closed.

According to Alberta Health, as of Wednesday, 821 cases of the novel coronavirus had been confirmed in workers at the Cargill plant and 276 cases among employees and contractors at JBS.

“We have taken every outbreak seriously and have used our fundamental outbreak principals to limit spread in settings of concern,” chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday.

Cargill to restart operations

Meanwhile, Cargill said Wednesday that it will be resuming operations at the High River plant on May 4, bringing back one shift.

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The company said the decision was made in consultation with Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety.

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“All employees who are eligible to return to work in our harvest department are asked to report to work,” Cargill said in a news release.

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“In keeping with our extensive focus on safety, we want to emphasize that employees should be healthy and not had contact with anyone with the COVID-19 virus for 14 days. Further, out of an abundance of caution, they should continue social distancing in the facility.” 

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According to Hinshaw, local medical officers of health have done on-site inspections at the plant, which stalled its operations more than a week ago.

“My understanding, from the information that my colleagues have given me, is that this plant in particular has made sure that all measures to prevent spread of infection are being put in place,” Hinshaw said.

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She added the health and safety protocols were enhanced, especially in places like the locker room, where additional measures have been put in place.

“Based on these on-site inspections and their assessment of the situation, my colleagues at Alberta Health Services have indicated that they feel these measures are sufficient to limit the spread of infection,” Hinshaw said.

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During the temporary closure, Cargill said it took time to take the following extra steps to ensure the health and safety of its employees:

  • Reduced likelihood of carpooling to reduce potential for transmission in transit
  • Limited access to the plant to no more than two people per car (sitting in the front and back seat to maintain proper social distance)
  • Provided buses that have been retrofitted with protective barriers between the seats to alleviate the need for carpooling from multiple areas — employees living in the same household will be granted a variance to the carpooling limitation
  • Worked with OHS through both virtual and in-person tours of the plant so they can see firsthand the work being done to protect and minimize the risk to employees on site
  • Added additional barriers in the bathrooms and reassigned lockers to allow for necessary spacing
  • Conducted extensive COVID-19 sanitation process, including additional cleaning in the parts of our facility that have been closed for 21 days
  • Focus on education and awareness of social distancing inside and outside of work, including not sharing food during meals

Cargill said employees who worked, or were scheduled to work, this week were also paid 36 hours of pay for the week and those who are off to deal with COVID-19-related illnesses are still being offered 80 hours of paid leave.

Union ‘not vaguely reassured’ facility is safe

However, the union representing the workers at the plant, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, is not happy about the re-open plan.

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“There’s been no meaningful consultation with the union or the workers and we’re outraged. I’ve instructed our lawyers that we will engage any legal action available to us to prevent the plant from opening,” union president Thomas Hesse said.

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Hesse said the only collaboration the company has had with the union was an invitation for a representative to be part of a “brief visual tour of the plant on very short notice to see what the plant looked like without any workers in it.”

“That’s not a health and safety inspection,” Hesse said. “In fact, the company was angry when the union representative took some photos of the interior of the plant and demanded those photos be returned to the company.”

He said the union is “not vaguely reassured” the facility is safe for workers to return to their jobs.

How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting High River

How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting High River

The union also wants clarification on what operating with one shift will look like, including how many workers will be in the plant during that shift. It also wants details on what’s being done in locker rooms and lunch rooms, as well at the start and end of those shift, to make sure those reporting to work are able to keep two metres apart.

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“There’s a lot of boxes that need to be checked and a lot of assurances need to be offered to Albertans before we can conclude that the plant will operate safely,” Hesse said.

“A few tidbits are hardly enough to reassure the union that thousands of workers are going to be safe. We have not seen a comprehensive A-to-Z report regarding procedure and protocols that would keep people safe in that plant.”

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Hesse said the plant is looking at several avenues to oppose the planned opening, including complaints to Occupational Health and Safety, filing grievances through the collective agreement and possible court action.

According to the UFCW, workers have told them the JBS plant in Brooks is operating at 30 per cent capacity.

Global News has reached out to both Cargill Meat Solutions and JBS Foods for comment. This story will be updated when a response is received.

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