Calgary

Alberta meat plant that had North America's then-largest COVID-19 outbreak has greatly improved safety: union

The site that was once North America's largest single workplace outbreak of COVID-19 has become a better place to work in the aftermath, says the union leader who pushed for stronger safety measures.

But anxiety still runs high among workers, says UFCW president Thomas Hesse

UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse says circumstances at the Cargill meat processing plant near High River are much better than they were before a COVID-19 outbreak forced its temporary closure. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The site that was once North America's largest single workplace outbreak of COVID-19 has become a better place to work in the aftermath, says the union leader who pushed for stronger safety measures.

Earlier this year, there were more than 950 cases connected to the Cargill meat processing plant near High River, south of Calgary

Two workers and the father of another employee died of the disease.

The JBS Canada plant in Brooks, east of Calgary, was also badly affected, with 650 cases and one death.

Thomas Hesse with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, who represents workers at both plants, says circumstances are much improved thanks in part to the union's calls for bolstered safety measures. 

"The employers have adjusted their attitude, as it were. They're listening to us in a more productive and constructive way," he told The Homestretch.

"They're allowing heightened union presence inside the plants, they're listening to their worker representatives. We're seeing more animated and vibrant health and safety committee meetings.

"We're seeing PPE, we're seeing Plexiglas barriers between workstations — all of the sorts of things that should be happening in these plants to try to manage the situation."

Cargill added several safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including these barriers between work stations at its High River plant. (Cargill)

Jarrod Gillig, VP of operations, said when the plant reopened in May, protective barriers had been installed on the production floor to allow for more spacing between employees, and face shields were introduced in places where protective barriers were not possible.

The plant has also implemented temperature screening and redesigned locker rooms. 

"I'm really proud of our team and what we were able to do and accomplish ... you think of all the work that went into keeping beef on the tables across Canada," he said. 

Gillig said the building's cafeteria is also undergoing an expansion so workers can properly physically distance. 

But Hesse says there is still a lot of anxiety among workers.

"The plants are still structured around a lot of proximity," he said.

"There's just so many people doing so much in such close quarters."

Hesse says there are ongoing proceedings at the Alberta Labour Relations Board to seek compensation for Cargill employees who suffered financially because of the outbreak and failures on the part of the government and the companies to do what was necessary.

"Really, it's a case of negligence, gross negligence, in a lot of ways," he said.

"There are going to be consequences in terms of legal rights and obligations."


With files from The Homestretch.

With files from Lucy Edwardson

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