Preventive measures at Alberta meat plants came too late to stop outbreaks

Preventive measures at Alberta meat plants came too late to stop outbreaks

CALGARY — The rapid spread of COVID-19 at Canada’s meat-packing plants isn’t a surprise, say union and health officials.

Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents federal meat inspectors, says recent safety measures put in place are positive.

But in a meat processing plant, it’s difficult to keep the virus in check if people are already sick.

“If you’re in a meat plant with 2,000 other staff, you can’t stay six feet away from folks at all times,” Murphy says.

“You’re going to the lunchroom. You’re going to the wash stations to clean up. … You’re going to the locker room to don on or off your clothing and equipment. And you’re going to the washroom. So it’s impossible to maintain that social distancing.”

The toll of COVID-19 on the meat-packing sector continues to grow. A shutdown of an Olymel plant in Quebec was followed by Harmony Foods near Calgary and a massive Cargill plant near High River, Alta. Cases are continuing to rise at a JBS plant in Brooks, Alta., but that plant remains open.

Murphy says the only way to resolve an outbreak in a meat plant is to shut it down for 14 days to give employees a chance to self-isolate.

Many employees in these plants are foreign workers who send money home to their families. He says the fear of losing a paycheque motivates some to show up for work instead of calling in sick.

“Unfortunately, we see that in a vulnerable population. They need the extra money and they don’t have the option of not going to work.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical health officer, says several measures were put in place at the Cargill plant to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus — distancing, Plexiglas-glass barriers and personal protective equipment.

“But because there are so many people who go in and out of these plants, it is possible that spread did occur before those protective measures were put into place,” she told reporters earlier this week.

“Many of the people who work there also live in large households. Also many of them were carpooling to and from work.”

She says a community approach to prevent spread after workers leave a plant are needed.

As of Thursday, 440 workers at the Cargill facility had tested positive for COVID-19, including one who died, with another 140 cases linked to spread in the community.

At the Brooks plant, there have also been 96 cases of workers. The death of a worker and of another person from the community are also being investigated to see if they were caused by the virus.

Hinshaw has said it’s likely that case numbers from the Cargill and JBS plants will continue to grow.

The president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 401, which represents employees at the packing plants, says the employers and the province’s Occupational Health and Safety department failed the workers by not acting sooner.

“This didn’t have to happen,” says Thomas Hesse.

“The government’s job is to protect its citizens from large multimillion-dollar corporations and the government didn’t do its job.”

Hesse says the union has reached out to the families of the woman who died and other workers who are ill. But it’s an uphill battle.

“It’s just chaos right now. Two thousand workers — some won’t answer their phone, some are sort of hiding, some are diagnosed and self-isolating,” he says.

“Many struggle with English, but we’re trying to connect.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2020.

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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