A worker has died from complications of COVID-19 amid an outbreak of the virus at a meat-packing plant in central Alberta, renewing worries about the safety of the industry during the pandemic.
The employee at the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer died on Jan. 28, according to the Alberta Health Ministry. The company and government officials did not release information about the man, said to have been in his 30s.
The union representing workers at the plant is calling on Quebec-based Olymel to suspend operations to control the virus. The facility employs 1,850 people and is in the midst of its second outbreak, after one in November. There have been mass infections at other meat-packing facilities in the province, including Cargill in High River and JBS Canada in Brooks.
As of Sunday, 197 cases had been linked to the outbreak at the Red Deer plant, the ministry said. The company said the plant itself has had 80 cases.
“We’re not asking to close the business or fundamentally destroy in any way the infrastructure in Alberta for getting food from farm to fork. We’re saying, ‘Whoa – take a couple of days, shut the thing down, do a deep clean and talk to the workers,’ ” Tom Hesse, President of OFCW local 401, said on Sunday.
Of the cases linked to the plant, 116 are active and 80 have recovered, and there have been no reported cases of the new, more contagious coronavirus variants, said Tom McMillan, spokesman for Alberta Health.
The company said it will conduct an inquiry into its employee’s death. “It’s a very sad event, and we transmit our condolences to the family and the colleagues,” spokesman Richard Vigneault said.
Olymel received the union’s request for a shutdown, but Mr. Vigneault declined to say if it will suspend operations. “The plant is in operation, but there could be some slowdown,” he said.
Mr. Vigneault said Olymel has been in close contact with Alberta Health Services. He noted that the company has enforced and strengthened safety protocols for workers since last March, and that AHS has been conducting testing on site during the current outbreak. AHS said its public-health inspectors have visited the Red Deer site multiple times since the outbreak to review safety measures.
Last fall, Olymel had outbreaks at two of its plants in Quebec.
With large numbers of employees in close quarters, meat-packing plants have proved to be susceptible to outbreaks, and Alberta’s expanding industry has been hit with several.
The Cargill plant in High River was the site of Canada’s largest workplace outbreak in the spring. Roughly 1,000 employees contracted the virus at the facility, staffed largely by immigrants. These employees then infected hundreds more in the community, such as relatives and roommates. RCMP in January confirmed it is investigating whether Cargill is responsible for the death of one of its employees, Benito Quesada, in May, 2020.
Cargill labourers in High River told The Globe and Mail that their company cleared them to return to work even if they had symptoms of COVID-19 or positive test results. The plant now has another cluster of 14 cases. Of those 10 are active and four have recovered, the ministry said.
Mr. Hesse points out that large numbers of food-processing workers are toiling together in facilities where physical distancing is difficult while the government demands people not gather socially in much smaller groups, which shows how the system is broken.
“You can’t stick 2,000 people in a box, and say, ‘Oh, we have social distancing, there’s hand sanitizers and there’s masks,’ ” he said. “They’re not slowing down or regulating the production in any way. They’re still tight-fitting boxes.”
With a report from Carrie Tait in Calgary
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