EDMONTON — Alberta has launched workplace safety investigations into two beef processing plants afflicted with COVID-19 outbreaks.
Shawn McLeod, deputy minister of Alberta Labour, said there are probes underway at the Cargill plant near High River and at the JBS Canada facility near Brooks.
“These investigations are looking at the circumstances surrounding potential exposure of workers at these facilities to the COVID-19 disease,” McLeod said Wednesday.
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He didn’t have a timeline on completion.
The Cargill plant was shut down by the company on Monday. It has 440 cases of novel coronavirus among its workers and one death. When illnesses linked to the plant from the surrounding community are added the total is 580 cases.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said 96 workers at the JBS plant have the virus. There has been one death of a worker but it’s not clear if it’s linked to the virus.
Hinshaw, asked why the government does not close the JBS plant to contain the outbreak, said the Cargill experience shows that it’s a larger, complex problem than the workplace, and that workers’ home lives and commuting practices must also be considered.
“(At Cargill) we focused very carefully on the plant when we did learn about cases … and made sure that the plant site had every (health and safety) precaution in place,” said Hinshaw.
“(But we didn’t) put the same kinds of measures in place throughout every aspects of the workers’ lives,” she said, citing supports to prevent transmission at their homes and in carpools.
Premier Jason Kenney said the plants represent two of 200 licensed meat processing facilities in Alberta, and that shutting down essential services like food production must be made carefully.
“There has been very strong inter-agency co-operation with the companies (and) the unions to ensure as much as possible the safety of people in those plants,” said Kenney.
Hinshaw also said an outbreak at the Kearl oilsands work camp north of Fort McMurray now has 32 cases, 25 of which are in Alberta.
Wednesday marked the seventh week since Hinshaw reported the first case of COVID-19 in early March.
There were 306 new cases — the highest single day report to date — bringing the total to 3,401, though of that figure 1,310 have recovered.
There were five more deaths, bringing that total to 66. Of those, two-thirds have been residents in long-term care homes.
Hinshaw also reported Alberta’s first case of COVID-19 on First Nations territory, a single case on the Sucker Creek reserve northwest of Edmonton.
“This individual was a contact of a case in High Prairie and is currently self-isolating. There is no outbreak on the First Nation,” said Hinshaw.
Kenney announced that Alberta is sending 25 ventilators to Quebec to help that province deal with the outbreak.
That’s on top of the personal protective equipment sent by Alberta earlier this month to Quebec: 250,000 N95 masks, two million procedural masks and 15 million gloves.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2020
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press