North

Diamond mines exempt from coronavirus travel restrictions due to economic importance

A glaring exception to travel restrictions placed on those entering the Northwest Territories during the COVID-19 pandemic is the one made for workers at the territory’s three diamond mines because of the importance of the mines to the N.W.T economy.

Safety measures based largely on symptoms, but growing evidence of asymptomatic spread

Lac de Gras surrounds the Diavik mine pit about 300 km northeast of Yellowknife. Diavik is one of two N.W.T. diamond mines that continues to operate during the pandemic. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

A glaring exception to travel restrictions placed on those entering the Northwest Territories during the COVID-19 pandemic is the one made for workers at the territory's three diamond mines.

At the mines, people from the N.W.T. work alongside those from provinces where there have been far more confirmed cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease. None of the workers from outside the N.W.T. are required to self-isolate for two weeks like most others arriving in the territory.

In an email, the territories' chief public health officer said the mines are allowed to continue operating because of the huge role they play in the N.W.T.'s economy.

"The goods produced may be a luxury, but the jobs they provide and impacts on families and communities are very real and important," said Dr. Kami Kandola. "More people die and get sick if they do not have work."

On March 20 the territorial government announced a travel ban into the N.W.T. that excluded mine workers. It was not until April 10 that Kandola introduced requirements aimed at preventing the arrival and spread of COVID-19 at the mines.

The emphasis at the press conference announcing the measures was on how much the mines were already doing to protect their workers, with Dr. Kandola saying, "It is probably safer to be on those sites than in your own home."

Though the response to the pandemic by the diamond mining companies has been uneven, each one has recognized that, despite prevention measures, there is still a risk of the virus entering the camps.

Dominion Diamond Mines has taken the most severe step. On March 19 it suspended production at its Ekati mine.

Rio Tinto and De Beers continue to operate their Diavik and Gahcho Kué mines at full production. But on March 20 both companies sent home workers from smaller N.W.T. communities to eliminate the possibility of them bringing the virus from the mines to those communities.

Tiny northern communities are believed to be more vulnerable to any COVID-19 outbreaks because of their remoteness and limited health care.

There remain about 500 people on site at Diavik and 320 at Gahcho Kué. About half the workers at both mines live in the N.W.T. No cases of COVID-19 have been detected at either mine. 

Longer shifts, physical distancing most of the time

The chief public health officer required workers at the mines to practice physical distancing for 14 days before each shift — the same thing everyone is required to do at all times.

During those 14 days workers are required to record any symptoms and their body temperature each day. (An elevated temperature is an early symptom of the coronavirus.) Rio Tinto says workers at Diavik also have their temperatures taken every day they are at the mine. Workers at Gacho Kué have their temperatures taken before leaving the site, according to De Beers.

Workers at the De Beers Gahcho Kue diamond mine are required to wear face masks when being flown and bussed to and from the mine. (De Beers )

Researchers say people who contract the virus will show symptoms within 14 days. The hope is that anyone with the virus will show symptoms during that 14-day period of physical distancing and not bring it to the mines.

Shifts have also been lengthened, partly to reduce the number of people coming and going and partly to ensure anyone catching the virus is detected and quarantined before returning home.

At both mines those working shifts of two weeks at the mine then two weeks off are now working a month on and a month off, according to De Beers and Rio Tinto. Workers who were on a shift of four days in and three days off are now working two weeks in and two weeks off.

Workers are required to wear face masks when being flown and bussed to and from the mines.

In response to a question about what's being done to ensure workers in the second half of their shift are not exposed to workers in the first half of their shift, De Beers said in an email that it is encouraging physical distancing during crew changes, meal times and at daily safety meetings, as well as taking other measures such as extra cleaning.

The chief public health officer came up short of requiring mine employees to stay two metres from one another at all times. Her order says that is not required when workers are working or eating meals.

Asymptomatic spread

The processes set up to catch infections before workers arrive at the mine and once they are there hinges on them showing symptoms.

But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests people can contract the virus — and spread it — without showing any symptoms. "Asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is occurring," noted the federal government last week in a summary of assumptions about the virus.

The Reuters news agency reported last week that 60 per cent of the 600 sailors from the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt who tested positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms.

The government is leaving it largely up to the mines to ensure they are complying with the order of the chief public health officer.

The NWT and Nunavut Workers Safety and Compensation Commission has the authority to perform inspections to ensure compliance but, according to an emailed response, has "stopped all non-essential travel to the mine sites to ensure the safety and health of our inspectors, workers on the sites, and the general public."

WSCC inspectors will only be sent to the mines if there is "a serious workplace incident or accident."

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