Olymel reopening Alberta pork plant after COVID-19 outbreak prompted closure

WATCH ABOVE: Some Global News videos about a COVID-19 outbreak at the Olymel plant in Red Deer.

Olymel announced Wednesday night that it is reopening its pork plant in Red Deer, Alta., after it temporarily closed for two weeks due to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

“Olymel management with the support of Alberta Health Services is announcing the gradual reopening of its hog slaughtering, cutting and boning plant in Red Deer,” the company said in a news release.

“Olymel will continue to work closely with AHS and the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) throughout the entire gradual reopening process.”

The Quebec-based company said reopening has become possible because “management and the regulators are satisfied that employees can return to the plant safely.”

Olymel’s news release came just hours after the union that representing the workers at the facility confirmed another person connected to the plant has died of COVID-19.

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READ MORE: New death connected to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak as Alberta Health removes previous fatality 

The union did not have details on the age or gender of the victim or the date when their death occurred. The new death was also not reported in the COVID-19 deaths announced by the province Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Alberta Health said the coronavirus outbreak at the Red Deer plant has resulted in 515 total cases, 78 of which remain active.

Alberta Health had previously confirmed the deaths of three other people related to the outbreak, however, on Wednesday the government department said one of those deaths is no longer believed to be linked to the outbreak.

Olymel said it plans to continue co-operating with AHS and OHS to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and to “ensure that there is a strong collaboration and commitment amongst its workforce to prevent the spread.”

“Olymel management wishes a speedy and healthy recovery to those who are still affected,” the company said.

“For the three of our employees who have unfortunately passed away after testing positive for COVID-19, the company offers its deepest condolences to their families, friends, and co-workers, and remains available to help them through this trying time.”

Earlier in the day, UFCW Local 401, the union that represents workers at the plant, posted on its Facebook page that it was pleased to see that Olymel cancelled a planned slaughter shift “and (is) instead providing the training we called for in our response to the proposed plant reopening.”

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“There are many more things that need to be done in order to make Olymel’s Red Deer facilities safe,” the union’s post reads. “We will continue fighting for our members’ safety and pushing the company to do more — including providing full compensation for the closure and pandemic pay moving forward.”

Click to play video: 'Union representing Olymel workers holds member engagement event amid closure' Union representing Olymel workers holds member engagement event amid closure
Union representing Olymel workers holds member engagement event amid closure – Feb 17, 2021

The union also said Wednesday that it has heard from its members that they “still do not feel safe, that they do not trust Olymel and the government to keep them safe.”

UFCW 401 president Thomas Hesse said he received no word from the company that the plant was reopening.

“Obviously the bottom line for Olymel is they’re just putting pigs ahead of people,” Hesse in an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

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“There’s this enormous amount of fear and anxiety, and now a layer of grief on top of that, and they expect employees to jump to attention and parade back to work.”

The union represents about 1,800 workers at the plant.

Hesse said the union interviewed between 600 and 700 workers who indicated they were afraid to return to work. He said that wasn’t done by Olymel, Alberta Health Services or Occupational Health and Safety.

Hesse said he expects some workers will take advantage of their right to refuse unsafe work.

Over the 14 days the plant was closed, Olymel said it worked to “update and reinforce” health and safety measures at the facility and collaborated with AHS to plan a gradual reopening.

“Further to full plant inspections by expert teams from AHS, OHS and Environmental Public Health on Monday, March 1, and Wednesday, March 3, AHS made several recommendations aimed at adjusting and reinforcing certain measures that were already in place and gave the green light to gradually resume operations,” Olymel said.

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

The company said slaughter operations will resume Thursday and cutting room operations will start again a day later. Olymel said it has also assigned additional staff to monitor and enforce health and safety measures.

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On Tuesday, the federal government’s special representative to the Prairies addressed the Olymel situation.

READ MORE: Ottawa ready to help pork producers affected by Olymel shutdown 

“Last spring, when outbreaks caused plants to slow down or close, we moved quickly to help livestock producers manage the growing backlog of animals on their farms,” Jim Carr said.

“Our government stands ready to help producers affected by the temporary closure of the Olymel plant in Red Deer, Alta. If needed, federal funding will be there to assist pork producers with extraordinary herd management costs such as additional feed costs.”

Carr did not provide specific details about what kind of assistance would be made available.

–With files from Global News’ Allison Bench and The Canadian Press’ Bill Graveland

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