‘A frightened workforce’: Union worries as Olymel reopens after COVID-19 shutdown

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Olymel meat plant resumes operation in Red Deer'
COVID-19: Olymel meat plant resumes operation in Red Deer
WATCH: After a two-week shutdown prompted by a COVID-19 outbreak, the Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer has resumed operations after health officials deemed it safe. Christa Dao reports on the growing concerns about the deadliest outbreak at a meat plant in Canada – Mar 4, 2021

Some employees of a central Alberta pork plant that shut down due to COVID-19 are afraid to go back to work, their union president says.

Olymel’s facility in Red Deer was shuttered Feb. 15 because of an outbreak in which three people have died and 515 workers have been infected.

The company announced late Wednesday it had been given approval to gradually reopen by Alberta Health. Slaughter operations resumed Thursday and cutting-room operations were scheduled to start again Friday. The plant processes about 10,000 hogs a day.

Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said he received no word from the company that the plant was reopening.

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

“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. 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.

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Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the plant shouldn’t be reopened until it is deemed to be safe inside. She also wants a public inquiry called into Olymel’s situation.

“To date, 500 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among Olymel employees. With the three confirmed deaths to date it is now the deadliest meat-packing plant outbreak in the country,” Notley said at a news conference in Calgary on Thursday.

“I’m hoping the premier will do the right thing. I’m hoping he will delay the opening of Olymel. I’m hoping that he will appropriately compensate meat producers.

“I’m hoping he will finally launch a full inquiry into the outrageous record in this province at meat-packing plants.”

Notley is also seeking a commitment from the justice minister that he will not intervene with any legislation that would protect potentially negligent corporations from lawsuits filed by victims’ families.

Olymel said the reopening is coming with a number of strict measures. Alberta Health experts are to be on site and are to offer rapid testing.

The company said 1,370 employees have been tested since Jan. 1 and space has been added to improve physical distancing.

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Additional staff have been assigned to monitor and enforce updated safety standards, Olymel said. Employee groups have been recalled to take part in training sessions covering all health measures, adjustments and the plan for reopening.

Alberta Health said “AHS continues to work in partnership with Olymel management, union representatives and community partners in responding to the outbreak and ensuring that staff have the supports they and their family require.”

In a statement, the UCP government said “it is disappointing — but not entirely surprising — that the Notley NDP continues to play politics with a global pandemic that has tragically taken the lives of over 22,000 Canadians and over 2.5 million worldwide.

“Occupational Health and Safety has inspected the Olymel facility 14 times since Nov. 17, both in person and remotely. OHS continues to monitor Olymel to ensure safety protocols and measures continue to be used and have conducted a joint in-person inspection of the facility on March 1, 2021.

“Following Olymel’s decision to gradually reopen, a joint inspection of the site and review of reopening plans took place with Olymel, AHS, UFCW, CFIA, and OHS. OHS will continue to monitor for compliance to ensure measures are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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“AHS has submitted recommendations of improvement to bolster their current COVID plan, and anticipate those will be implemented prior to reopening. This includes:

· implementing capacity limits in lockers rooms and washrooms;
· removing reusable dishes in break rooms;
· enhanced cleaning/disinfecting schedules of washrooms, break rooms, locker rooms;
· more hand sanitizing stations throughout;
· increased education plan for staff, including staff training sessions, posters, and other visuals.”

— with files from Global News

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