‘A tragedy in every sense’: Union wants Red Deer pork plant shut down after worker dies of COVID-19

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The union that represents employees of a Red Deer pork plant wants the Olymel facility temporarily shut down after a worker died of COVID-19.

Alberta Health confirmed to Global News on Saturday that a man in his 30s from the Central zone without comorbidities died on Jan. 28 and was connected to the meat-processing plant’s outbreak.

Richard Vigneault, a spokesperson for Olymel, called the death sad — “It’s unfortunate, and we are very sorry about this” — and offered his condolences to the family. He said an investigation is ongoing.

Read more: All 13 workers sent home from Red Deer meat plant test negative for COVID-19

“This is a tragedy in every sense,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local No. 401, which represents Olymel, a plant with about 1,800 workers processing thousands of pigs each day.

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“There should be a lockdown of that workplace right away in order to have a meaningful, comprehensive investigation of the relationship between the death in the workplace and this broader outbreak so this doesn’t happen again, and that is the employer’s responsibility.

“Under Alberta law, they have a responsibility to keep their employees safe, and, of course, it’s the government’s responsibility to enforce the law.”

‘Crowd into a box’

The Olymel outbreak was declared Nov. 17, 2020, according to Tom McMillan, assistant director of Alberta Health communications. Currently, of the 168 cases linked to this outbreak, 90 are active and 77 have recovered.

“There are these huge risks in these places. Thousands of workers every day go crowd into a box and work side by side,” Hesse said.

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“You can have as much PPE as you want and plexiglass shields that you want, and people are still bumping into each other.”

Read more: How the coronavirus pandemic could change meat processing in Canada

Olymel has recently ramped up production and hiring, Hesse said.

“At Olymel, we haven’t seen these very significant outbreaks until recently, and we believe that it’s because they’ve lost sight of health and safety, and they’re focused on production, expanding their business and hiring more workers,” he said.

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“So the workplace is becoming more crowded and new employees aren’t being trained and the health and safety culture is being lost. As a result of putting production first, we’re seeing someone dying at very, very large numbers of outbreaks.”

Read more: Quebec pork processing plant grapples with COVID-19 outbreak, union seeks temporary closure

When asked about Hesse’s safety and production claims, Vigneault did not want to comment on what the union told Global News.

‘There’s going to be an answer’

Hesse said the union has asked the company to close the facility and have experts conduct a health and safety assessment.

“Our job as a union is to speak to the employer, ask them to do the right thing, close the plant down for a little while, hit the pause button. But really, this is the government’s role to protect workers and protect the citizens of Alberta, the citizens of Red Deer. This could become a very, very grave situation very quickly unless some action is taken,” he said.

McMillan said officials are “taking action to support the health of everyone involved and prevent future spread,” which includes offering testing, ensuring people at risk of exposure are isolated and working with operators to make sure appropriate cleaning measures are in place.

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As of Saturday afternoon, Hesse said the government and employer have not responded to the union’s request.

“Workers are starting to just not show up for work because they’re frightened,” he said.

Read more: Canadian meat-packing industry looks to make big changes following COVID-19

Vigneault said Olymel received the union’s letter, only confirming that “there’s going to be an answer.”

“We will respond to this letter. This is my answer,” Vigneault said.

“But in the meantime, we’ll continue with our sanitary measures, our co-operation with [Alberta Health Services], all the staff… and be sure that [additional steps that are working are] enforced and everybody respects those measures. So [we’ve done] that since the beginning of the pandemic, every day, today as [well as] yesterday as well as tomorrow, and this will continue as long as the pandemic.

“There’s no reason, there’s no plan to shut the plant down for two weeks as requested by the union. But we will discuss with the union about this request and see what can be done to reassure them.”

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Vigneault said Olymel is taking the situation “very seriously” with “strong measures, robust processes and safety protocols” to control the outbreak.

Read more: Alberta RCMP reviewing whether COVID-19 death of Cargill meat plant worker was criminal

“We are trying to do everything in our power to keep our employees safe,” he said. “We’re doing everything that could be done to stop the spread, and we co-operate every day with the unions within the plant.”

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