An Ontario Ministry of Labour inspector visited Amazon’s massive warehouse in Brampton, Ont., just two days before local public-health officials shut it down amid a massive COVID-19 outbreak – but the province issued no new orders of its own for any violation of pandemic rules.
Peel Public Health closed the facility on March 12. The region’s Medical Officer of Health, Lawrence Loh, issued an order forcing Amazon’s nearly 5,000 workers to isolate at home for two weeks amid an accelerating outbreak that since October has infected 617 people who work at the site, on Heritage Road near Steeles Avenue West. The company says all the workers will be paid while off the job.
On Sunday, the province said its own Ministry of Labour investigation on the site was continuing. It says inspectors had visited 12 times in the past year and had issued nine orders to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols were being followed. But the province said that as of Monday, its most recent investigation was complete, with no further action ordered.
The ministry said a provincial labour inspector was last on-site on March 10, two days before Dr. Loh ordered Amazon to close the massive fulfilment centre over the online retailer’s objections.
Amazon has said it does not believe its infection rate, which it says recent testing has pegged at just 1 per cent, warrants the shutdown. But as of Wednesday, it had not filed a formal appeal of Dr. Loh’s order with the province’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board. An Amazon spokesman did not respond to requests for an interview.
Dr. Loh’s order also requires Amazon to take action to improve its COVID-19 protocols, such as prohibiting workers from other sites with outbreaks or suspected outbreaks from entering the Brampton facility, and increasing its cleaning and disinfection of “high touch” surfaces, such as forklift controls and handrails.
The health order tells Amazon to review its operations to ensure staff are “cohorted by day, time and area of work and type of work” and that capacity limits for areas such as washrooms, entrances and lunchrooms are enforced to allow two metres of physical distancing.
The order also requires Amazon to explore “transportation options for staff for safe commuting” and ensure signs about COVID-19 safety protocols are posted in the languages spoken by its staff.
Asked why a provincial inspector would have declined to issue any COVID-19 orders just days before Peel Public Health shut the site down, Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, said ministry inspectors were working closely with Peel health officials. He said government enforcement staff would return to the site to see improvements being made during the shutdown and on the day workers return.
He suggested the problems at the Amazon site, which is in one of the province’s worst hot spots for COVID-19, had to do with factors outside the workplace.
“There’s transmission obviously in the community. There’s issues with people going to and from work,” Mr. McNaughton said. “So there’s a lot of complexities to this, but our ministry will be on the ground every day working to protect the health and safety of those workers and continuing to support the local public-health unit.”
According to the text of Dr. Loh’s order, contact tracing conducted by public health “has indicated that the majority of cases have identified their workplace as the likely source of acquisition.” The outbreak, which Peel Public Health says is its largest and longest, began in October.
Mr. McNaughton said the government had inspected 208 similar warehouse and distribution facilities in Peel alone in February, and that its inspection blitzes continue. The labour ministry said it has also investigated other Amazon sites for potential COVID-19 infractions.
The government says provincial inspectors and enforcement teams have conducted more than 15,800 workplace inspections and investigations this year, issuing 11,900 orders and 410 tickets related to COVID-19. The inspections have included big-box stores and small businesses, and focused on risky areas for transmission such as break rooms.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.