As Alberta oilsands site fights infections, some want fewer fly-in workers

A coronavirus outbreak at an Alberta oilsands site has spread across five provinces and sparked calls to limit the use of fly-in workers in the remote locations.

106 known infections associated with Imperial Oil's mine near Fort McMurray

The Kearl oilsands mine near Fort McMurray has been linked to more than 100 COVID-19 cases. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

A coronavirus outbreak at an Alberta oilsands site has spread across five provinces and sparked calls to limit the use of fly-in workers in the remote locations.

Any restrictions would upend a labour model that the industry depends on. Projects that use fly-in workers represent more than half of the region's crude production capacity.

There are 106 known infections associated with Kearl, Imperial Oil's mine near Fort McMurray, according to Alberta Health Services. Cases linked to the site have been found in four provinces besides Alberta, and triggered an outbreak in northern Saskatchewan.

"Bad enough trying to manage an infection when employees are working and living shoulder-to-shoulder in work camps. It's even more difficult to manage when those workers are jumping on planes and flying home to hundreds of communities across the country," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, whose members include unions representing oilsands workers.

McGowan said he wrote in April to the Alberta government asking for a ban on fly-in workers and did not receive a response.

The practice of flying in workers to stay in remote camps expanded in the mid-2000s as the booming oilsands looked for cost-efficient ways to deploy labour, finding that paying workers living allowances to commute from Fort McMurray was too costly, said Bruce Inglis, a councillor with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Fifteen oilsands projects that use fly-in workers account for about 60 per cent of the region's crude capacity, according to a 2018 report for Oil Sands Community Alliance, an industry group.

The sites are located an average of 110 kilometres from Fort McMurray, the region's hub.

Many of the workers arrive during maintenance periods that require extra labour.

Using workers from across the country is "a benefit for all of Canada," Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said. Her spokesman, Kavi Bal, said cases linked to the Kearl outbreak have remained relatively low due to effective control measures.

Some 1,450 people are working at Kearl, a drop of nearly half from normal levels, said Imperial spokesman Jon Harding.

Some sites are so remote that it does not make sense to ban fly-in workers, said Walter Ticas, a heavy equipment operator and union president representing workers at several Suncor Energy projects.

Even so, the pandemic illustrates the need for oilsands companies to permanently reduce the use of fly-in workers, which would support the local economy and reduce outbreaks, Inglis said.

"These camps are like a cruise ship," he said. "You're very confined to them and it's very hard to keep them clean."

The outbreak's long-term impact on demand for remote camps is an open question, said Trevor Haynes, chief executive of Black Diamond Group, which operates some camps.

Since the Kearl outbreak, all employees and contractors on site are eligible for COVID-19 testing. Imperial has established an isolation wing and gauges workers' temperatures daily, among other measures.

Some operators have extended shift rotations to 14-day periods, from seven days, to match the virus's incubation period, said Robert Skinner, an executive fellow at University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

Buses to Suncor's base plant are running half full while face masks and gloves are now common, though not mandatory, Ticas said.

"They're doing the best they can with what they've got."