Canadian Manufacturing

Second death at Cargill: calls for shutdown and worker input

An OHS report says workers weren't included in an internal review of circumstances leading to over 950 confirmed cases of COVID-19

May 12, 2020  The Canadian Press

CALGARY — Alberta’s Opposition NDP, along with union leaders, is calling on the province to shut down a Cargill meat-packing plant so it can be determined whether the company is meeting legal obligations to involve workers in safety concerns.

An Occupational Health and Safety report says Cargill didn’t include workers in an internal review last month of circumstances that led to over 950 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in employees at the plant in High River, Alta.

The department has given the plant, which has 2,000 workers, a week to make that happen.

The Alberta government announced May 11 that a second employee at Cargill had died of COVID-19.

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“Unfortunately, one death reported over the weekend was an employee from Cargill who fell ill last month,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health.

“Although we are speaking about this today, the individual was hospitalized about a month ago.”

The union said more employee involvement is needed to make sure the slaughterhouse is safe.

“If workers aren’t in the process of determining if the workplace is safe, they’re not going to feel safe in returning to work. It’s a matter of not just procedure and law, but also of the perception among our members as to whether or not the plant is safe,” said Michael Hughes of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.

Hughes said the union has been asking to be involved in a review of the plant since the outbreak began.

“We don’t know how the plant can be open today if a proper investigation has not been carried out. Thus far, it appears that Cargill is going to do what Cargill is going to do. And really we’re kind of like a voice in the wilderness.”

Christina Gray, labour critic for the NDP, told a news conference it’s frustrating that the United Conservative government hasn’t guaranteed the safety of Cargill workers.

“This is not a safe work environment. We believe the government is responsible and the employer is responsible and there must be a public inquiry after the emergency has ended, but that will be a ways away,” she said.

“If Cargill can’t follow the law, they shouldn’t remain open. Full stop.”

The plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle a day — more than one-third of Canada’s beef-packing capacity.

It shut down for two weeks in April over the outbreak, but reopened last week.

On Sunday, another Cargill plant south of Montreal announced it will temporarily close its doors after at least 64 workers there tested positive for COVID-19.

A statement from Cargill said the OHS has given the company more time to complete its investigation into the High River plant and to further involve the facility’s joint health and safety committee.

“It is common during an investigation for OHS officers to direct the employer to consider additional information as part of the investigation,” the statement said.

“Cargill fully intends on co-operating with the OHS officer’s direction and will consider further recommendations from the committee, if any.”

Cargill said Occupational Health and Safety would be required by law to issue a stop-work order if the plant were found to be unsafe, and that hasn’t happened.