Alberta oilpatch companies sending home non-essential employees in preventative bid to combat COVID-19

Companies in Alberta's oilpatch are taking aggressive steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 with Syncrude and Suncor both sending non-essential employees home.

'The safety and well-being of everyone at our sites is our top priority,' says Syncrude's Will Gibson

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the city of Fort McMurray, Alta., on June 1, 2014.
Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson said the company is taking precautions on site and encouraging employees to practice good hygiene and follow Alberta Health Service guidelines.  (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Companies in Alberta's oil patch are taking aggressive steps to curb the spread of COVID-19, with Syncrude and Suncor both sending non-essential employees home.

"The safety and well-being of everyone at our sites is our top priority," said Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson.

"We're proactively taking a lot of steps to limit the number of people on site."

Gibson said the company is also taking precautions on site and encouraging employees to practise good hygiene and follow Alberta Health Services guidelines. 

But not all employees are convinced enough is being done.

A subcontractor working at a Syncrude site, whom CBC agreed not to name for fear of reprisal, is worried about how quickly the virus would spread if someone was infected. 

"Do I feel safe? Absolutely not," the employee said. 

"I've been in camps before and someone gets a cold and half the camp is sick."

The employee said it would be really difficult to keep people safe in a site environment. 

"Only way they can keep you safe is shut it down and send you home, but obviously that's not going to happen."

The employee said that while people have separate rooms and bathrooms, they're sometimes packed in tight at the cafeteria. 

"Sometimes there's six sitting at a table and their trays are touching." 

Gibson said Syncrude doesn't operate its camps but contracts them out. 

Do I feel safe? Absolutely not.- Anonymous employee

He said the company has dealt with similar issues in the past, like SARS and H1N1, so it already had some protocols prepared.

Now the company has consulted experts and updated the plan to suit the novel coronavirus. 

"We are transitioning our workforce to essential-only for our work sites," Gibson said.

He said he recently cancelled a trip to Fort McMurray, instead opting for a teleconference appearance to a meeting. 

Gibson conducted the CBC interview from his home in Edmonton as all Syncrude employees who can work from home have been sent home.

"I've encouraged all of our employees to speak to their leaders, continue to follow the updates that the company is posting regularly and understand that they need to be doing the right thing," he said.

'We're doing what we can'

Suncor has also put in measures to prepare for COVID-19, including cutting down its workforce to only essential staff. 

The company has implemented safety measures such as stationing a security guard at the entrance of the dining room to make sure everyone entering is using hand sanitizer. 

Suncor spokesperson Erin Rees said the company is also opting to change its buffet-style cafeteria for a full-service cafeteria to eliminate high-traffic touch points for things like tongs. 

"We're doing what we can to help flatten the curve, to help reduce the spread of the virus and the burden on public health organizations,"she said, adding the focus is on prevention. 

Syncrude and Suncor both said they don't have any reports of coronavirus at the time of interview. 

Ken MacLean, director of communications for workforce housing provider Civeo, said in an email the company is "implementing measures to manage against the spread of any illness at our facilities."

MacLean said Civeo is working with medical professionals, government, customers and third-party experts. 

As well, the company has a travel protocol in place to create a criteria it can use to "mitigate community exposure related to the virus."

Alberta Health Services was not able to provide comment at the time of publication. 

According to the Building Trades of Alberta, Syncrude is also indefinitely delaying spring shutdown due to the threat of COVID-19.

"We applaud Syncrude for taking this exceptional, but highly necessary move, to ensure its workforce is safe," the BTA said in a news release. 

Have a story? Email reporter Jamie Malbeuf at jamie.malbeuf@cbc.ca