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Union members gather at closed Olymel plant in Red Deer to show support for workers

Click to play video 'Union representing Olymel workers holds member engagement event amid closure' Union representing Olymel workers holds member engagement event amid closure
Members of UFCW Local 401, the union representing Olymel workers, gathered at the plant in Red Deer on Wednesday to show their support for workers impacted by the outbreak at the facility. As Sarah Offin reports, the outbreak is linked to cases in hundreds of employees, including one death – Feb 17, 2021

Members of the union representing Olymel workers gathered at the company’s pork plant in Red Deer on Wednesday to show support for those impacted by the outbreak at the facility and its subsequent closure.

There are currently 343 COVID-19 cases linked to the Olymel outbreak. Of these, 200 are active, 142 recovered. One worker has died.

Olymel said late Monday it was shutting down the hog slaughtering, cutting and deboning plant indefinitely because it believed it could no longer be operated safely and efficiently.

Read more: Nurses, contact tracers responding to Olymel pork plant outbreak in Alberta

At Wednesday’s gathering, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said over 80 per cent of workers have told the union in recent weeks that they’re scared to come to work.

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“They’re terrified,” Hesse said. “Over 90 per cent of them have asked for a closure.”

“Unsafe workplaces should not be allowed to operate. So we’re here to remind Olymel that they need to complete the process of closure.

“We need to talk to the government, we need to talk to the experts and this can’t happen again. This is really becoming the shame of Alberta’s agriculture industry.”

Hesse said one of the primary areas of concern is the proximity of the workers.

“There are almost 2,000 workers here. If we saw 2,000 individuals at a wedding on the six o’clock news, we’d freak out.”

Click to play video 'Hinshaw says Olymel plant’s COVID protocols were ‘up to standards… to prevent worksite transmission’' Hinshaw says Olymel plant’s COVID protocols were ‘up to standards… to prevent worksite transmission’
Hinshaw says Olymel plant’s COVID protocols were ‘up to standards… to prevent worksite transmission’ – Feb 17, 2021

He said the union is asking public health officials to interview workers at the plant.

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“We want to meet with public health officials and the employer and have them hear a worker’s perspective.”

Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday that officials are monitoring the situation “very closely.”

“On matters like this, these are issues that are the responsibility of our public health experts — in this case in particular, the central Alberta medical officer and of course the chief medical officer and her team,” he said.

“They have worked very closely with the operators of the plant, and they brought in dozens of additional safety protocols. Obviously we’re all very concerned about this outbreak.”

Read more: Olymel temporarily closes Alberta pork plant because of COVID-19 outbreak

Olymel has previously said the outbreak at the facility began in November, but it wasn’t until Jan. 20 that there was a significant rise in infections and one person later died.

On Tuesday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that the plant had “sporadic cases” — one or two at a time — for several months, and that the processes that have been put in place at the plant site had been successful in preventing spread.

“In fact, there had been no cases for some time and there was consideration on closing down that outbreak,” Hinshaw added.

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Hinshaw said it seems the more recent spike in cases was the result of a “confluence of events” outside the plant.

Click to play video 'Red Deer pork plant shuts down following COVID-19 outbreak' Red Deer pork plant shuts down following COVID-19 outbreak
Red Deer pork plant shuts down following COVID-19 outbreak – Feb 16, 2021

“Olymel sincerely hopes that all employees at the Red Deer plant who have tested positive for COVID-19 soon regain their health. The company will follow up with all employees to ensure their quarantine period is being respected and will strongly encourage all staff to get tested before returning to work,” a statement on Monday said.

“Olymel will also continue ongoing investigations to determine what may have caused such a large outbreak of COVID-19 cases since January 20.”

— with files from Global News’ Allison Bench and Sarah Offin and The Canadian Press