Meat packing workers are increasingly at risk from COVID-19, and better safety measures are needed, says a union leader.
At Red Deer’s Olymel pork processing plant, 1,400 employees work and take breaks, often in close proximity to each other, said Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Local 401, which represents the employees.
Apprehension about the potential impact of COVID-19 in crowded workplaces only rose this week after nearly 40 workers at Cargill’s High River meat packing plant came down with the virus. In response, the company laid off hundreds of workers, says the union.
Five to 10 workers at JBS Canada’s plant in Brooks have also tested positive, said Hesse.
Red Deer’s plant has no cases of the virus.
“So, we’re just holding our breath, waiting for Olymel. We’ve tried to be preventative,” said Hesse.
While the virus has not been detected at the Red Deer plant, the union wants to see measures taken immediately to ensure safety, starting with a 14-day paid shutdown to provide a quarantine period for all workers.
“Let’s hit the pause button before the spike happens,” he said.
Hesse said the nature of packing plants increases the risk of passing on viruses.
“These plants are built around the notion of social proximity. They’re not built around the notion of social distancing.
“This is shoulder-to-shoulder and elbow-to-elbow work. It’s about line speeds and efficiencies.”
The union is also asking for a meeting, including health officials and company and union representatives, to discuss the best way forward with workers.
On Tuesday, Olymel reopened a hog slaughter and processing plant in Yamachiche, Que., that had been closed for 14 days after nine workers came down with COVID-19.
Eventually, 125 workers were infected. The company said the decision to close was made to protect workers and limit community transmission.
While the plant was down, the company developed in co-operation with health authorities, a new safety protocol, which is in place at Olymel facilities, including the Red Deer plant, said Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault.
When workers arrive for their shift, they are required to fill out a questionnaire.
“If there is any sign of trouble or health problems, the employee is invited to go into a private mobile trailer, where their temperature can be taken,” said Vigneault.
If there is a high temperature reading, the employee will be given information on how to reach health authorities and then will be sent home.
Vigneault said a number of employees have been added, including specialists in occupational medicine and occupational hygiene. Other new hires ensure all the new rules are being followed and six new janitors have been hired to clean and disinfect.
In areas where recommended physical distancing is not possible, protective panels have been set up between workers who must now wear N-95 masks and visors. As well, the line speed has been reduced and extra hand washing stations added.
A number of measures have been introduced to make it easier to maintain physical distancing. Shifts and breaks have been staggered and only 25 per cent of employees are on shift at a time.
Eight trailers have been provided to allow for more space for breaks and locker rooms have been spread about the plant to avoid a frequent “bottleneck” for workers getting ready for work.
Daily safety meetings are held with staff, union representatives, managers, a Canadian Food Inspection Agency representative and health officials, said Vigneault.
The company is well aware of the health risks posed by COVID, he said.
The virus has been detected in 10 of the company’s 37 facilities across Canada, although mostly in very small numbers — one case at four facilities, two at another and three at two other facilities.
“It is not easy for employees right now,” he said. Like everyone, they watch as COVID dominates the news and the number of those infected continues to rise.
The company appreciates that they are coming to work and are taking responsibility for keeping the workplace safe, Vigneault said.