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OHS report finds COVID-19 investigation at Cargill High River plant did not include worker representation

The Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., on Monday, May 4, 2020.
The Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., on Monday, May 4, 2020. Global News

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety has found that Cargill did not attempt to engage worker representation as it investigated what led to an outbreak of COVID-19 among workers at its meat-packing facility in High River.

READ MORE: Alberta reports 96 new cases of COVID-19 Sunday; 70% of total cases now recovered

According to a report from OHS, Cargill conducted the investigation without participation of the joint worksite health and safety committee, which is required under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“The current OHS investigation thus far reveals Cargill did exclude worker representation in workplace health and safety processes, a violation of OHS Act,” UFCW Local 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes said in a statement on Sunday.

“This happens as we are trying to raise concerns about the COVID-19 hazard. The outbreak reveals we have been proven right about that hazard and Cargill has been proven wrong.”

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., reopens amid ongoing talks with union

Global News obtained the OHS report from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, the union that represents Cargill workers.

“If no proper investigation has been done, how can we be sure that the workplace is safe now? How can we be sure there won’t be a further outbreak?” Hughes said.

Cargill’s plant north of High River is the site of one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in North America, with more than 1,500 cases linked to the plant and 945 workers who have tested positive for the virus.

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New numbers released by the province on Sunday showed that there are currently 58 active cases among workers at the plant and 893 have recovered.

Hiep Bui, a Vietnamese national who worked at the plant for more than two decades, died after being infected with the virus.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Another Cargill meat plant set to close due to COVID-19 outbreak

In its report, OHS has ordered Cargill to:

  • report any new worker COVID-19 infections
  • carry out investigation into circumstances that led to worker infection
  • prepare a report with findings of investigation
  • provide report to OHS and the joint worksite health and safety committee

According to a spokesperson for Alberta’s ministry of labour, Cargill has been granted an extension until May 18 to complete its investigation with the participation of the joint worksite health and safety committee.

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“Cargill was not found in ‘non-compliance’ of the OHS Act and a new order was not issued against Cargill. The OHS officer has given Cargill more time to complete its investigation and further involve the plant’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,” Cargill spokesperson Graham White said in a statement to Global News.

“Cargill fully intends on co-operating with the OHS officer’s direction and will consider further recommendations from the committee, if any. The OHS officer would be statutorily required to issue a stop-work order if the plant is found to be unsafe. Cargill has not been issued a stop-work order.”

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Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, called the findings in the OHS report disturbing but expects the company to comply with the demands listed by OHS.

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“In absence of the union’s involvement, essentially the company is calling all the shots and we know they really can’t speak on behalf of the workers without the health and safety committee being fully involved in the investigation that is taking place in the workplace,” Yussuff said.

“I think it’s a validation of what the union has been saying publicly since the outbreak of infection at this plant, and subsequently, the workers and family losing their lives as a result of that.”

READ MORE: How the coronavirus pandemic could change meat processing in Canada

On May 1, UFCW Local 401 filed legal action seeking a stop-work order from OHS, citing concerns over distancing measures inside the facility.

The union also filed an unfair labour practice complaint against both Cargill and the Alberta government.

Cargill reopened the High River plant on May 4 after a two-week shutdown.

According to the company, the plant reopened with new health measures like temperature checks, mandatory face masks and other protective equipment, enhanced sanitizing and increased physical distancing.

Both the union and Cargill participated in mediation prior to the plant’s reopening and a hearing is scheduled with the Alberta Labour Relations Board on Thursday and Friday.

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