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Politicians respond to explosive reports of safety issues at Kingston baby formula plant

Click to play video: 'Politicians respond to reports of health and safety issues at Canada Royal Milk plant' Politicians respond to reports of health and safety issues at Canada Royal Milk plant
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Kingston-area officials are responding to serious allegations about safety concerns, harassment and mismanagement at Canada Royal Milk detailed in a CBC News investigation.

The stories, published over Tuesday and Wednesday, report the concerns of several anonymous workers and former employees at the Chinese-run facility. Some allegations refer to “explosion and electrocution risks, unsafe storage of chemicals and air quality concerns,” while others referred to harassment and belittling of employees.

Read more: Kingston residents complain about foul odour from baby formula plant

The stories allege that some of these concerns were brought forward to the city of Kingston and Ontario’s Ministry of Labour.

Global News has not been able to substantiate the claims in either story, but has confirmed with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development that ministry officials have been called to the facility 13 times between Jan. 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, and issued 13 orders during those visits.

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“We have multiple investigations ongoing at this location,” the ministry said.

There are also seven different cases linked to the baby-formula plant listed on the Ontario Labour Board’s online portal.

But, Canada Royal Milk’s human resource manager Carey Bidtnes told Global News Wednesday that all investigations at the plant are now resolved.

“The complaints that were lodged to the Ministry of Labor of Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and other regulatory bodies were all investigated and resolved,” she said in a statement.

Bitdnes said Canada Royal Milk is unaware of multiple ongoing active investigations by the Ministry of Labour at the facility.

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Global News has since reached out to politicians at all three levels of local government, who all expressed their concerns about the CBC  reports.

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Mayor Bryan Paterson said, after the news stories broke, he immediately spoke to staff to make sure that standards usually enforced by the city are being followed.

“My belief is that every worker in this city should feel safe and supported by their employer. I think that’s really important as a community. And certainly I’ve spoken with our city staff to make sure that all of the standards that are enforced by the city are being followed,” Paterson said.

He also said that whenever there was a complaint made against Canada Royal Milk “under city authority” that it was dealt with.

“Those are standards that certainly would refer to the building, to fire standards, to those sorts of things. Obviously other sorts of complaints about workplace safety or other harassment — that’s something that needs to be dealt with by the Ministry of Labour,” he said.

The city confirmed the mayor’s claims in a statement.

“Currently, there are no outstanding issues connected to Canada Royal Milk that fall under the city’s jurisdiction. However, the city will work with the Kingston Economic Development Corporation to identify how it can best assist as appropriate moving forward,” the statement said.

Donna Gillespie, CEO of Kingston Economic Development Corporation, one of the main players to bring Canada Royal Milk to Kingston, said she was first alerted to the allegations through the CBC story.

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“These are serious claims. It was brought to my attention that a CBC journalist was looking into reports on workplace safety but I had not heard specifics of concerns until the story was released.  I am not aware of any active investigation by the Ministry of Labour or other governing body. We are closely monitoring this media coverage and have reached out to Canada Royal Milk to identify if support is needed,” Gillespie said.

Although the mayor says he’s taking the allegations seriously, he did take issue with one element of the story that stated the city of Kingston transferred the land the facility was built on, to the company.

“There was not a donation of land,” Paterson said. “I know that the article seemed to suggest that, but we sold land to Canada Royal Milk,” he said.

Global News also spoke to Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton Wednesday. Although he didn’t speak in specifics, McNaughton warned that corporations could be facing hefty fines if they do not follow the province’s workplace safety regulations.

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“I want every worker to know that they’re protected by the labour laws in Ontario. If they feel unsafe at work, they can refuse that task or that job,” McNaughton said.

Kingston and the Islands MPP Ian Arthur said his office will be following the issues raised by the CBC.

“We’re already in the process of following up with the Ministry of Labour to see what next steps are being done and to make sure that worker safety continues to be a top priority in every workplace in Ontario and in Kingston,” Arthur said.

Mark Gerretsen, MP for Kingston and the Islands said he hadn’t heard any complaints before the CBC articles were published, but said his office is open to help any local workers dealing with workplace issues.

“I’m deeply concerned when it comes to allegations and concerns like this coming from people from within my riding that happened to work there,” he said.

Read more: Baby formula recalled over possible Cronobacter bacteria contamination

Just recently, the facility garnered attention when those living nearby reported a foul odour coming from the milk-processing plant.

For a previous story, Bidtnes told Global News there were two equipment malfunctions that caused the smell.

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“The liquid waste that was sent to the wastewater treatment plant was higher in concentrated protein,” Bidtnes said on March 10.

In a statement provided to Global News Wednesday, Bidtnes said that Canada Royal Milk takes matters of worker safety and health very seriously.

“We have set high standards for ourselves, and we strive every day to meet and exceed these standards. If at some point we were to fail to meet them, we are committed to addressing these matters quickly,” she said.

She said the company has put in place a process for managing employee complaints and encourages all employees to report their concerns to the company’s health and safety team.

Bidtnes says Canada Royal Milk welcomes further inspections of the Kingston milk plant.

“Furthermore, once the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing of the past, we will invite the public to come and see for themselves, as we had committed to do during the construction of the plant. We are proud of the work our employees are doing and we have nothing to hide,” she said.

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