Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley is asking Premier Jason Kenney to launch a public inquiry into a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at a Red Deer slaughterhouse, delay the meat-packing plant’s reopening and compensate its employees during the closure.
The Olymel plant, which had been closed since Feb. 15, confirmed Wednesday that it planned to reopen for slaughter operations on Thursday and resume cutting room operations on Friday.
The news of the reopening came on the same day that a third worker’s death had been linked to the outbreak.
According to the union representing workers at the plant, that makes a total of four deaths — including a woman in her 60s previously linked to the outbreak — but the government has yet to confirm that total.
The outbreak has been linked to 511 COVID-19 cases, including 91 that are still active.
Speaking from Calgary’s McDougall Centre on Thursday morning, Notley asked the provincial government to keep the plant closed until safety measures requested by the union are met and employees feel safe going back to work.
“With 500 infections and three deaths, [safety measures were] not adequate before,” Notley said. “I can only imagine the grief and the stress that they are experiencing as a result.”
The company says it has improved health and safety measures.
Deaths linked to outbreak
The Olymel outbreak was first declared on Nov. 17, 2020, and Notley said Thursday the NDP is aware of three Olymel workers who are currently in intensive care.
The first death linked to the plant’s outbreak happened on Jan. 28. Darwin Doloque, a 35-year-old permanent resident who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines was found dead in his home.
His death was followed on Feb. 24 by that of Henry De Leon, a 50-year-old who immigrated from the Dominican Republic and had worked at the plant for 15 years. He left behind a wife, two adult children and three grandchildren.
The third worker’s identity has not yet been made public, nor has the identity of the woman in her 60s who died. It has not been disclosed how she was linked to the outbreak.
Notley said that outbreaks have occurred in meatpacking plants across the country since the pandemic started, but shutdowns occurred sooner in other provinces.
She called for an immediate public inquiry to understand the Olymel plant’s handling of the outbreak.
“We need to hold those responsible accountable,” Notley said. “I fear that instead we are doing nothing, or very little.”
The NDP’s request to delay the plant’s reopening came with an acknowledgement from Notley that the slowdown or shutdown of meat plants jeopardize livelihood of employees.
She asked the provincial government to compensate workers for lost wages.
“It is not something that needs to be provided by workers literally being compelled to put their lives at risk,” Notley said. “That is an immoral choice.”
Company says it has worked with AHS
According to Alberta Pork, 40,000 to 50,000 pigs go through the Red Deer facility each week.
Last month, it was reported that the temporary closure of the Olymel pork processing plant due to COVID-19 left hog farmers scrambling to find somewhere to take their animals.
On Wednesday, Olymel defended plans to reopen Thursday, saying it had used the temporary closure to update and reinforce health and safety measures at the plant.
“Reopening can occur because Olymel management and the regulators are satisfied that employees can return to the plant safely,” said spokesperson Richard Vigneault.
“Alberta Health Services authorities have however specified that the coronavirus is still spreading and that everyone is at risk of contracting it, whether in the community or otherwise. Accordingly, they recommend the utmost vigilance.”
The company said teams from Alberta Health Services, Occupational Health and Safety, and Environmental Public Health visited the facility on March 1 and 3. AHS made several recommendations at that time.
The company said it had added staff to monitor and enforce health and safety measures, and “further adjusted and enhanced” social distancing protocols, particularly when it came to adding physical space.
Health and safety meetings between management and union representatives are scheduled on a daily basis, the company said.
Safety recommendations made
The Alberta government confirmed to CBC News on Wednesday that Occupational Health and Safety had toured the facility on March 1, and again with AHS and the union on March 2.
“OHS continues to monitor Olymel to ensure safety protocols and measures continue to be used to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Joseph Dow said in an emailed statement.
According to Dow, AHS made safety recommendations to be implemented before the plant’s reopening.
The measures recommended by AHS included:
- Implement capacity limits in lockers rooms and washrooms.
- Remove reusable dishes in break rooms.
- Enhance cleaning/disinfecting schedules of washrooms, break rooms and locker rooms.
- Add more hand-sanitizing stations throughout.
- Increase education plan for staff, including staff training sessions, posters and other visuals.