PEI

How P.E.I.'s biggest employers are trying to prevent workers from spreading COVID-19

Some of the biggest employers in the province have already implemented protocols to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among staff, while other employers like seafood processors are gearing up for a season unlike any other.

Possible shutdown of a workplace to be discussed between company, public health if there's a positive case

A picture of what lobster processing used to look like at Royal Star Foods in Tignish. The company is implementing measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus among employees, putting up barriers and limiting how many workers can be in the same place at one time. (CBC)

While the P.E.I. government looks to ease back coronavirus restrictions, possibly as early as May 1, some of the biggest employers in the province are gearing up for a season like no other, installing equipment and developing protocols meant to prevent an outbreak from spreading among hundreds of staff.

As an example of just how far things can go wrong, consider the Cargill meat-packing plant south of Calgary, responsible for one-third of Canada's beef processing. The plant has been linked to nearly 500 cases of COVID-19, including 360 cases and one death among its own workers. 

A poultry processing plant in east Vancouver was also shut down by health officials this week, after 28 staff tested positive.

With lobster and crab seasons set to get underway this spring, Royal Star Foods in Tignish, P.E.I., is preparing for hundreds of seafood workers to return.

This season each worker will have their temperature measured using a thermal camera before they're allowed inside the plant. Anyone with symptoms will be provided with a mask and asked to leave the plant and call 811.

With P.E.I.'s spring lobster season set to get underway in mid-May, seafood processors are preparing to try to process that catch while minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19 among fishermen and plant workers. (CBC)

Some of the other measures included in the company's COVID-19 action plan:

  • Shift start, end and break times are staggered, with four separate shifts each starting 30 minutes apart.

  • Plant workers, workers on the wharf and fishermen who supply the company have all been provided face shields.

  • Workspaces on the production floor have been separated with plastic screens to prevent close contact between employees.

  • There are limits on how many people can be in certain areas at one time, including washrooms and locker rooms. 

  • Four additional cleaning staff have been hired, with production areas and contact surfaces to be cleaned every two hours.

"We're hoping we can get through the whole season with no problem," said plant manager Francis Morrissey. On the other hand, he said "after one day, we may have a problem. But on P.E.I. we're lucky that there's very few cases."

'Begging' people to be 'extra, extra careful'

Morrissey said on top of all the directives from public health and the premier for Islanders to respect physical distancing, the plant has sent its own request to workers to do that even before the season starts. 

Once the season begins, he said workers should only be travelling to and from work.

Francis Morrissey of Royal Star Foods says the company wants employees to be either at home or at work during the season, and is 'begging' them to call in sick and not come to work if they're not feeling well. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

"We're hoping that during the processing season, it's Point A and Point B. Point A is your house and Point B is the processing plant," said Morrissey.

"We're begging people to be extra, extra careful and if anybody doesn't feel good stay home. We'll pay you for that day until we find out if there's a problem."

Reduced workforce and fewer TFWs

While Royal Star would normally have a workforce in excess of 350 during peak operations, Morrissey said the plant is aiming to have up to 250 workers this season, using its storage facilities to keep seafood fresh while spreading processing work further through the summer.

He said the plant has also decided to bring in fewer temporary foreign workers this year — up to 15, instead of the 65-70 the company was approved for by Employment and Social Development Canada — in part to reduce the risk of importing a case of COVID-19.

While seafood processors are gearing up for their season, some of P.E.I.'s biggest year-round employers have already implemented measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Cavendish Farms

With 700 workers operating at peak capacity, potato processor Cavendish Farms is P.E.I.'s biggest private employer.

As at Royal Star, Cavendish Farms is using thermal imaging cameras to record temperatures of staff before they're allowed into its production facilities in New Annan.

Production areas have been marked off to show where employees can operate while maintaining a two-metre distance from coworkers. Where that's not possible, Plexiglas and stainless steel barriers have been put up.

Cavendish Farms told CBC it's using thermal imaging cameras to screen for COVID-19 before workers are allowed on the floor at its production facilities in New Annan. Royal Star Foods is using the same technology at its Tignish seafood processing plant. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"Our primary concern is to protect the health and safety of our employees and their families," company spokesperson Mary Keith told CBC via email.

The company has introduced pay continuation for employees self-isolating due to COVID-19, and three paid emergency leave days to allow staff to care for children or other family during the pandemic.

StandardAero

Among the measures taken at StandardAero in Summerside: the company has implemented a full split of its roughly 500 staff into two separate shifts.

The company says it's also "supplying and encouraging the use of additional personal protective equipment in our facilities."

All three companies the CBC contacted provided some information on their plans in the event a worker is confirmed to have COVID-19.

A photo of the work floor at StandardAero in Summerside before adjustments were made for COVID-19. The company has split its workforce into two separate shifts. (John Robertson/CBC)

What if a worker tests positive for COVID-19?

Royal Star Foods' response plan calls for the plant to be shut down for intensive cleaning by staff wearing full protective suits.

Cavendish Farms said it would implement a temporary shutdown if "the person who was infected with COVID-19 entered the production facility and we are required to shut down the production line to properly sanitize equipment," or if it did not have a "sufficient number of employees to safely operate the facility."

But in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak the decision on whether to close down might not be left up to the company operating the facility.

Dr. Heather Morrison said if there's a positive case of COVID-19 at a major Island employer, the decision on whether to shut the plant down would be discussed between public health and the company involved. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said a positive COVID-19 case within a major employer on P.E.I. would "trigger quite a large public health nursing contact-tracing" effort to try to pin down any spread from the employee involved, with close contacts of that worker being required to self-isolate.

"Some of it will depend on the setup" of the facility involved, said Morrison, in terms of how far the requirement to isolate employees might go.

In terms of whether a plant would stay open after registering a case of COVID-19, Morrison said "quickly it would become a decision, which we would be discussing with that company, about whether you close down the industry."

Morrison said it's better to err on the side of caution in any decision to "close things down to prevent further spread" of the coronavirus.

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.

  • Cough.

  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.

  • Practise physical distancing.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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