Fort McMurray cleanup workers allege dirty treatment in wildfire zone

A national restoration company is now under investigation after workers complained they were not properly trained or outfitted to clean up after the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Workers say they weren't told masks, gloves required to handle potentially toxic ash

CBC News obtained several photos of workers shown wearing ServiceMaster T-shirts, cleaning suites without safety gear like gloves or face masks. (Supplied)

A national restoration company is now under investigation after workers complained they were not properly trained or outfitted to clean up after the Fort McMurray wildfire.

​ServiceMaster Restore markets its workers as "highly trained technicians" using "cutting edge technologies."

CBC News has learned at least some of the workers the company contracted to do wildfire cleanup did not receive formal training, nor basic equipment required to do the job.

"It was really a complete gong show," said Dave Gallop, who told CBC he was fired for raising concerns. 

It was really a complete gong show.- Dave Gallop

Gallop was among the dozens of workers employed at the beginning of June by ServiceMaster and a sub-contractor the company hired called Fort Mac Cleaning Services.

At least three employees say they were hired to do wildfire cleanup at condos and hotels, given little to no information about risks, and were required to spend up to 12 hours a day inside the rooms, with doors and windows closed.

'They gave us T-shirts'

"Everybody was really wondering what was going on," said Stephanie Brewis, who answered an ad on Kijiji that promised $17 an hour, and was at the cleanup site a few days later.

CBC News obtained several photos of workers in ServiceMaster T-Shirts, allegedly cleaning hotel suites in Fort McMurray without protective equipment like masks. (Provided to CBC)
"They put our suitcases in the foyer, gave us T-shirts, told us not to open the doors or windows, and to wipe down the ash from all rooms."

Brewis said she was let go after she asked for time off to visit her ailing mother.

Warnings for workers and employers with plans to participate in the Fort McMurray cleanup have been posted to the Alberta government website.

Cleanup crews wear full suits and protective gear on Prospect Drive in Fort McMurray at the beginning of June. (Marion Warnica/CBC)
"Ash and burned debris from the fires may contain hazardous substances, such as heavy metals, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), asbestos and dioxans/furans," the warning said.

The province recommends those who may have direct contact with ash should wear properly fitting respirators, gloves, eye glasses, long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

Pictures obtained by CBC News show workers in ServiceMaster T-shirts, wiping walls and surfaces in hotels and condos, without wearing masks or gloves.

Worker safety 'utmost concern'

CBC made repeated attempts by phone and email to request an interview with ServiceMaster. The company responded with an email that did not address the workers' specific allegations. In the email, the company said the safety of its workers is of "utmost concern."

Servicemaster said it has launched an internal investigation.


Call the OHS Contact Centre right away if you're concerned about immediate harm or injury from work, to you or anyone else:

1-866-415-8690 (toll-free in Alberta)

780-415-8690 (in Edmonton)

Anyone can report unsafe conditions at a workplace; you don't have to be employed by a business to do so.

(Source: Alberta government website)

Alberta's provincial Occupational Health and Safety department said it has had five complaints regarding Fort McMurray cleanup, two of them related to Fort Mac Cleaning and Servicemaster. OHS is investigating.

"OHS laws require employers to ensure workers are adequately trained to do their job, which would include knowledge of potential hazards," provincial spokesperson John Archer wrote in an email. 

"All employers are required to conduct a hazard assessment and identify and address any hazards at a work site. Employers should make sure workers are aware of that hazard assessment."

A copy of Gallop's contract, sent to him in advance of the Fort McMurray job, makes no mention of potential risks or hazards.

'Disturbing' allegations

The safety codes manager with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo called the allegations "disturbing."

"It's hard to manage," said Damon McGillivray. "And hard to enforce."

McGillivray's office processes permits and business licences for companies operating in Fort McMurray, but the office has not been open since the fires began in early May. That means there is no way to know how many companies have set up in the area to help with restoration, how many employees they have hired, and whether those businesses have the right training and equipment to do the work.

"Insurance companies are driving a lot of this," he said. "Our request is to have permits in place."

Businesses can start applying for those papers when his office reopens in two weeks.

Meanwhile, the provincial government is also monitoring the situation. OHS added four new staff in Fort McMurray in direct response to the wildfire, so there are now a total of nine monitors there.

The department also sent out a strangely worded press release on Tuesday, reminding employers in the province that labour laws still apply in the wildfire zone.

Gallop's contract does not mention potential risks of the cleanup work. CBC News obtained the full document and shows part of it here. (Supplied )