Inside Quebec's COVID-19 workplace inspection blitz

Last week's outbreak at a meat processing facility in the Beauce highlighted a recent trend: the second COVID-19 wave is spreading through workplaces. The province has scrambled 700 inspectors to conduct a safety blitz that targets the construction, manufacturing, retail sales and food preparation sectors.

700 inspectors have fanned out across the province as public health attacks workplace coronavirus outbreaks

A sheet metal worker operates a machine on a factory floor in Asbestos, Que., on Oct. 19 (CBC)

Eight days ago, inspectors from the provincial workplace safety watchdog arrived at a meat packing plant in the Beauce region in response to a coronavirus outbreak.

Once there, the officials from the Commission nationale des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) met with management, union officials and the local public health authority to make sure proper safety measures were in place.

The next day, provincial public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda met with the CNESST to discuss an inspection blitz and hours later confirmed an emerging trend: unlike the spring, the second wave of COVID-19 is spreading through places of work.

Last Thursday, the blitz was launched. Through Tuesday, when Labour Minister Jean Boulet updated reporters, it had led to 415 on-site visits all over the province, in a raft of different sectors.

According to Boulet, the 300 CNESST inspectors have been joined by another 100 from the Commission de la construction du Québec and 300 more from the agriculture, environment and health departments.

They've fanned out across the province, and while there is no realistic hope of visiting more than a small, strategic sample of the tens of thousands of workplaces in Quebec, they are targeting vulnerable sectors identified by public health.

"A detailed analysis is made so our interventions are compatible with the level of risk," Boulet said.

New data sheds light on which workplaces are most vulnerable

So where are those vulnerable sectors? Newly released data provides some insight.

According to the Institut national de santé publique (INSPQ), the number of workplace outbreaks increased for six consecutive weeks ending Oct. 17. That week, it jumped by nearly 30 per cent to 501. A total of 2,061 workers were infected.

Those numbers are destined to climb.

Last week's outbreak at the Olymel plant in Vallée-Jonction, in the Beauce, has already resulted in 110 positive tests for COVID-19, according to the union.

The INSPQ also provided a glimpse of where, specifically, those outbreaks are happening. The bulk are in the manufacturing sector, including lumber mills, slaughterhouses, plastic factories and airplane part manufacturers.

The manufacturing industry wants more testing

An association representing Quebec's manufacturing industry said it's important to consider the broader context.

"If you look at the numbers more specifically, in mid-October during one week there were 37 outbreaks, 111 workers were concerned," said Véronique Proulx, CEO of Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters. "In manufacturing, you have nearly 500,000 workers all over Quebec, so I think we need to put this into perspective a bit."

Proulx said the large manufacturers are on board with the latest wave of inspections, and indeed any initiative to bolster their safety measures, and said added COVID testing capacity would simplify the job. Many are more than willing to foot the bill in order to have on-site testing, she said.

It's not strictly a manufacturing industry issue.

The INSPQ also lists outbreaks in restaurants, retail outlets like department stores, supermarkets and car dealerships, as well as in government offices and institutions including the court system.

As to the mechanics of how these outbreaks are happening, Boulet said: "during breaks, during meals, there is more contact. There is less social distancing, and less consideration for wearing protective equipment and yes, that includes masks."

In practical terms, the latest initiative has involved visiting construction sites, factories, stores and meat processing facilities to audit their anti-coronavirus measures and offer advice on how to improve them.

More than 12,000 workplace inspections this year

Thought the main objective is raising awareness and improving existing measures, Boulet pointed out "inspectors have the right to force an employer and an employee to respect the norms." 

The question is whether they'll use it.

A CNESST spokesperson told CBC News last week that co-operation has generally been exemplary throughout the pandemic, the agency has made 12,277 COVID-related inspections since the spring (not including the current blitz).

It issued 22 tickets over that period.

with files from Spencer Van Dyk and Radio-Canada

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