Safety investigation of COVID-19 in Cargill slaughterhouse didn't include worker representation, OHS finds

A review from Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety has found that Cargill did not attempt to engage worker representation as it investigated the circumstances that led to the largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single facility in Canada.

Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety orders Cargill to comply with 4 demands

Union representatives, company officials and members of the media were on hand Monday as the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., reopened after being closed for about two weeks because of a COVID-19 outbreak. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

A review from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has found that Cargill did not attempt to engage worker representation as it investigated the circumstances that led to the largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single facility in Canada.

Such steps are required under Alberta's OHS Act, which requires investigations to be conducted with the participation of the joint work site health and safety committee.

A copy of the OHS review was provided to CBC News by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, the union representing workers at the meat processing plant in High River, Alta.

"The main thing is, for the first time on paper, we have OHS validating us and echoing what we've been saying all along … that we haven't been included in the process," said Michael Hughes, a spokesperson with the UFCW. "It means that that plant hasn't been inspected in compliance with the OHS Act.

"If it hasn't been inspected in compliance with the OHS Act, how is it operating today?"

A statement provided by Cargill on Sunday confirmed that the company was in receipt of the OHS report.

"Cargill was not found in 'non-compliance' of the OHS Act and a new order was not issued against Cargill. The OHS officer has given Cargill more time to complete its investigation and further involve the plant's joint health and safety committee," the statement reads. "It is common during an investigation for OHS officers to direct the employer to consider additional information as part of the investigation.

"​​​​​Cargill fully intends on cooperating with the OHS officer's direction and will consider further recommendations from the committee, if any."

Cargill's meat-packing plant in southern Alberta has been linked to more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19, with close to 950 employees testing positive. Two deaths are linked to the plant.

On May 1, the union sought a stop-work order from OHS and filed an unfair labour practice complaint against both the Cargill plant and the Government of Alberta. 

The facility would reopen the following Monday despite the union saying that 85 per cent of workers surveyed indicated that they were afraid to return to work.

OHS demands

The demands issued by OHS require Cargill to:

  • Report any new worker infections.
  • Carry out investigations into circumstances that led to infection. 
  • Prepare a report about those findings.
  • Provide a copy of the report to OHS and to the joint work site health and safety committee.

Adrienne South, a spokesperson for the provincial labour minister, said in an email that OHS had granted an extension to Cargill until May 18 to complete its investigation with the participation of the joint work site health and safety committee.

"We cannot comment further given that OHS is currently conducting its ongoing investigation," South said.

Previously, Cargill said it had implemented measures to keep employees safe, including installing protective barriers on the production floor to allow for more spacing between employees and introducing face shields where that wasn't possible.

Workers prepare beef to be packaged at the Cargill facility near High River, Alta. This image was taken by a worker prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Name withheld)

Employment lawyer Andrew Monkhouse said it's likely Cargill will comply with the order, as being found in violation of it could result in further sanctions.

"They mention at the beginning [of the order] that the outbreak is a potentially serious incident. It's well known by everybody, but it's good that these things are taken seriously," he said.

"I'd say that this should be taken as a strong reminder by the company to make sure that the workers and the union are being involved in the important decisions that affect their safety."

Employees at the plant have accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation. 

live video inspection by OHS, conducted after dozens at the plant were already sick, concluded the work site was safe to remain open. The video call was accompanied by a unionized UFCW worker and a union shop steward, and the video was recorded to be reviewed later.

The union has a hearing scheduled with the Alberta Labour Relations Board next week.

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