British Columbia

Union criticizes WorkSafeBC report after correctional officers refused work at jail on brink of COVID outbreak

Several days before health officials announced a COVID-19 outbreak at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, six correctional officers exercised their right to refuse unsafe work at the institution.

Outbreak at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge was announced days after workers complained

Workers at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, B.C., say they are concerned about bringing COVID-19 home to their families after an outbreak at the jail. (CBC)

The president of the union representing correctional officers at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre says she's "disappointed" in a report by WorkSafeBC into working conditions at the institution, where several inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. 

WorkSafeBC was called to the institution in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Jan. 22 after three correctional officers exercised their right to refuse unsafe work.

An inspector presented a report the following day that found every issue raised by the workers either didn't constitute an undue hazard, or was beyond the scope of the agency's inspection.

Three additional staff members also refused unsafe work after WorkSafe's inspection had already begun, according to the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU), making it six in total.

"The right to refuse unsafe work is never a step that workers take easily. It takes a lot to look at your job situation and say 'This isn't safe for me,' and tell your employer that," said Stephanie Smith, BCGEU president.

On Wednesday, Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announced a COVID-19 outbreak at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, several days after staff raised their concerns.

According to the WorkSafeBC report, the affected unit has 14 inmates — six of whom had tested positive as of last Friday.

The staff raised several safety concerns, including:

  • Inmates with COVID-19 weren't being isolated.
  • There wasn't Plexiglas protecting staff at a desk in the unit.
  • Using protective clothing can hinder access to personal alarm transmitters and utility belts.
  • The number of inmates allowed in open areas wasn't reduced from five to one.
  • The risk of bringing a COVID-19 infection home to their families.

According to the report, the employer relied on local health authority guidance to keep the group of inmates together to prevent virus transmission to other wards.

The concern that staff could bring the virus home was determined to be outside the scope of the WorkSafeBC inspection, because it only applies to the staff — not their families' safety.

"We found the results of the report disappointing, because again, we stand 100 per cent behind our members and we feel they have very, very valid concerns," said Smith.

"Our position is that the employer — outside of the WorkSafe report — needs to look at what can they do to ensure there's a level of comfort among the staff and the inmates that are in our jail system."

The B.C. Public Safety Minister's office sent CBC News a written statement saying WorkSafeBC found the protocols in place are effective in mitigating any risks to worker safety.

"B.C. Corrections is committed to ensuring a safe workplace for all staff," the statement read.

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