As the number of COVID-19 cases linked to the Cargill meat plant in High River, Alta., continues to climb, the Alberta government is confirming more details about the scope of investigations looking into both the outbreak there and a death linked to the facility.
As of Thursday, 480 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.
In a statement issued to Global News on Thursday, a spokesperson for Alberta Labour said Occupational Health and Safety is currently investigating the death as well as “the circumstances at the work site that may have led to workers becoming infected.”
“These investigations will look at the circumstances surrounding potential exposure of workers at Cargill related to COVID-19,” Adrienne South, press secretary for Labour Minister Jason Copping, said in an email. “This will also include an investigation of any potential non-compliance that may have affected the health and safety of workers at the facility.
“Workplace factors such as training, control measures, different job roles, etc., will factor into determining the full scope of any investigation.”
Alberta NDP Labour Critic Christina Gray called for a public inquiry on Thursday into the handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in Alberta meat-processing plants.
“We believe the premier and the government cabinet failed to act at Cargill and also appear resistant to meaningful action at the JBS plant,” she said in a statement. “Now, we have significant community spread in two Alberta communities and at least one worker has died.
“This government has lost the trust of the public. The only way we can truly learn from these tragedies and hold the government to account on these serious matters is through the launch of a full public inquiry.”
At the JBS meat plant in Brooks, Alta., there have been 124 cases of COVID-19 involving workers and contractors as of Thursday afternoon. The death of a worker and another person from Brooks were confirmed Thursday as being caused by COVID-19.
“These two additional deaths are the ones that I mentioned yesterday with respect to Brooks, which have now both been confirmed as cases of COVID-19,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said at a news conference in Edmonton on Thursday.
She added that one was an employee at JBS Foods and the other was a household contact of an employee.
“My sincere condolences go out to everyone grieving the loss of a loved one today.”
South said after the first COVID-19 case was reported at Harmony Beef north of Calgary, “an intergovernmental business resumption protocol was immediately established for provincially and federally licensed food processing facilities in Alberta.”
“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,” she said. “In addition to OHS, AHS officials have also visited Cargill High River on a number of occasions.”
At the Cargill site, South said a live inspection was done with an “inspector directing movement as required” and that video of the inspection was captured for OHS to refer to later if they need to.
“Due to the circumstances of the pandemic, video conferencing was employed,” she said. “Video inspections are being conducted to mitigate risk of exposure of all parties. Such inspections are not specific or unique to the Cargill facility.
“The officer doing the inspection observed the employees at their daily duties.”
South said a unionized plant worker and a shop steward with the United Food and Commercial Workers union joined the employer for the official OHS inspection.
Earlier this week, Hinshaw said plant conditions and practices aren’t the only factors that need to be looked at when it comes to understanding the COVID-19 outbreak tied to the Cargill plant.
“We know in this particular outbreak, when cases were identified, there were measures put in place at the plant, but some of the other measures that we’re now seeing are really critical,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on April 20. “There are things like carpooling that’s been identified as a risk, and so not just looking at the plant itself, but looking at how do people get back and forth to work, thinking about households.
“There’s households where people simply don’t have the space to self-isolate if they’re a case or if they’re a close contact and needing to provide supports to those people.”
The president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 401 said he believes the employers and OHS should have done more and sooner.
“This didn’t have to happen,” Thomas Hesse said. “The government’s job is to protect its citizens from large multimillion-dollar corporations and the government didn’t do its job.”
In a statement issued to Global News on Thursday, Cargill said that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has “worked in lock step with local health officials and other regulators.”
“Our team are essential workers like health-care workers and first responders,” spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said. “Our hearts go out to our employees who are impacted by the virus.
“We have taken industry-leading health and safety measures, including temperature testing, providing and encouraging the use of face coverings, cleaning and sanitizing procedures, prohibiting visitors from our facilities, stopping travel, adopting social distancing practices where possible and offering shift flexibility, staggered breaks, and increased spacing and partitions in work areas.
“We have and continue to follow OHS guidance and are fully engaged in addressing the community-wide impacts of the virus.”
Earlier this week, Cargill said it was taking steps to temporarily close the plant. There are still questions about what that decision will mean for workers there.
The UFCW is now calling for the JBS plant in Brooks to temporarily shut down.
In an email to Global News on Wednesday, a spokesperson for JBS said the company “cannot know for certain how, where or when our team members were infected given the widespread nature of the virus.”
“Each case is heartbreaking. Our sympathies go out to everyone around the world who has been impacted by this common enemy we all face,” the email reads.
“The Brooks facility remains open to continue to provide food for the country. We will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe.
“We are working diligently to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and have adopted enhanced safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits to keep our workplaces, team members and products safe. The health and safety of our team members providing food for us all during this unprecedented time remains our top priority.”
–With files from Global News’ Heather Yourex-West and The Canadian Press’ Bill Graveland
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.