Alberta meat processing plant linked to Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak will reopen in days

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Alberta meat packing plant hit by largest single site COVID-19 outbreak in Canada plans to reopen in days after closing for two weeks when hundreds of workers fell ill with the virus and that a woman has died.

Cargill announced Wednesday that its meat packing plant near High River, Alberta, will reopen with a shift starting May 4 – a decision that the union representing the workers is “of grave concern”.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the facility was linked to more than 1,200 cases of COVID-19, of which 821 were workers. A worker in his sixties died and her husband was hospitalized for the disease.

The Cargill plant and a JBS plant in Brooks, Alberta, which employs 276 cases, supply more than two-thirds of Canadian beef.

All employees who are eligible to return to work in the harvesting department are asked to report to work, said Cargill.

Cargill is one of McDonald’s two main suppliers of beef and normally treats approximately 4,500 cattle a day at this time of year. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press)

The company said returning employees must be in good health and should not have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 for 14 days.

“We look forward to welcoming our employees again and are focused on our continued commitment to safety,” said Jon Nash, North American manager of Cargill Protein, in a statement.

“We know being a critical worker is a challenge and we thank our team for working so hard to deliver food to local families, access to markets for breeders and products for our customers’ shelves.”

The company said new security measures have been introduced since the facilities closed.

Some factory workers have previously accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to induce them to return to work after self-isolation.

After the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, no preventive inspection was carried out. A live video inspection by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, conducted after dozens of people at the plant were already ill, concluded that the site could be left open safely.

Several days later, the epidemic had increased to hundreds and the factory was closed after the woman’s death.

Union pursuing legal action

UFCW Local 401 spokesman Michael Hughes said the union had not been informed in advance of the reopening of the facilities.

“We learned this at the same time as everyone,” said Hughes.

“It is extremely disturbing that Cargill is even considering reopening in a few days while presiding over the largest epidemic of [Canada] and while half of its employees are sick with COVID-19. ”

Hughes said Cargill has not taken the union’s suggested safety initiatives. He said the union will now work with legal counsel to continue the action to prevent the plant from opening.

The union fears that Cargill will be “emboldened” by US President Donald Trump’s decree on Tuesday to force the meat factories to continue operating, he said.

“If COVID-19 is a fire, they throw us there. “

A sign outside the JBS meat processing plant in Brooks, Alberta, thanks workers for continuing to present themselves during the pandemic. Hundreds of factory workers have now contracted COVID-19. (CBC)

New measures

During the shutdown, Cargill said it would reduce the likelihood of carpooling by providing buses with protective barriers between seats to transport workers. Employees who live in the same household will not be required to follow carpooling restrictions, the company said.

The company claims to have worked with OHS through virtual and in-person visits, and has added additional barriers in restrooms and reassigned lockers to allow for greater spacing.

Protective barriers have also been installed at the production site to allow for greater spacing between employees, the company said, and face shields have been introduced in places where protective barriers are not possible.

Earlier today Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not say whether Canada would follow the Trump administration’s example by forcing meat plants to remain open, emphasizing worker safety. as a priority.

Cargill, Smithfield Foods Inc., JBS USA and Tyson – the world’s largest meat companies – have shut down operations in some 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America.

As of Wednesday’s provincial update, 276 workers were positive at the JBS meat plant in Brooks, about 180 kilometers southeast of Calgary.

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