NDP accuses province of grossly mismanaging COVID-19 outbreak at Cargill plant
CALGARY -- One employee at the Cargill slaughterhouse in High River, Alta., has died of COVID-19 and another is in a medically induced coma in the intensive care unit, the union representing nearly 2,000 workers tells CTV News.
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Thomas Hesse says the patient is a new Canadian who spent four years bringing his family to Canada.
"The death could have been prevented," Hesse said. "The provincial government has not protected these workers.
"The union wanted this site closed down more than two weeks ago. We were shouting at company officials and government officials to close the plant down when there was just a few (COVID-19) diagnoses."
The illnesses are part of an outbreak at the facility that's seen more than 400 of its 2,000 employees test positive, and the NDP is now accusing the province of being untruthful about an Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) inspection, saying it was conducted virtually.
The NDP alleges the province did not properly inspect the facility — jeopardizing hundreds of other workers.
"It is unconscionable that we now have a situation where hundreds of people have contracted a deadly virus," said NDP leader Rachel Notley.
The opposition released a copy of the report, saying a video was recorded by Cargill, which then provided the footage to OHS on April 16.
The report says the inspection included pre-screening tents, a main security building, hallways, the women's locker room, a main lunchroom, secondary lunch room, laundry room and the fabrication production floor.
The document says no inspection was completed of the harvest/slaughterhouse department as no activities were being carried out that day.
The report goes on to say the health inspection officer believes Cargill, "as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so, ensured the health and safety and welfare of workers engaged in the work of that employer."
The ministry of labour disputes those claims, however, saying the inspection was an interactive one.
"Regarding OHS, to be clear, it was not a video delivered to OHS. It was a live inspection and fully interactive, with the inspector directing movement as required," said Adrienne South, press secretary to the minister of labour in an email to CTV Calgary.
"Video is also recorded so that the OHS official can go back and review and follow up if required."
South said the officer doing the inspection "observed the employees at their daily duties."
"In addition to the employer, a unionized UFCW worker of the facility and a union representative (UFCW shop steward) took part in the OHS official’s inspection," she said.
More than 500 confirmed cases have been linked to the facility through employees and members of their households. One employee, a woman in her 60s has died from the virus.
Last week the company suspended its afternoon shift and on Monday, Cargill announced the High River plant would be idled, but officials didn’t say how long that would last or whether employees would be paid during the down time.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, in her afternoon COVID-19 update, said hotel rooms would be made available to workers to help prevent the spread.
"Any households where someone has a case where they don't have the means to safely isolate away from the rest of the family, that's absolutely available to them," Hinshaw said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Alberta Federation of Labur issued a letter asking for a government and a police investigation into the outbreak.
"We demand that you open a formal Occupational Health and Safety investigation into the circumstances of this tragic workplace fatality," it said. "Second, we demand that you also direct the RCMP to open a criminal investigation into the matter under the so-called "Westray provisions" of the Criminal Code."
The Cargill outbreak is also being linked to an outbreak at Seasons Retirement Community in High River where five employees — who all live with workers from Cargill — tested positive. The centre says none of its residents have tested positive so far.
As of Monday afternoon, the High River area has 310 confirmed cases of COVID-19.