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Employees work at the Amazon fulfillment center in Brampton, Ont., on Nov. 26, 2018.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Peel region is scrambling to contain the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces, which appear to be one of the largest sources of surging infection rates in the area west of Toronto.

Peel, which includes the cities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, is one of the country’s largest warehouse and distribution hubs, and businesses in the region employ many immigrants and members of multigenerational households. Widespread outbreaks in manufacturing and food processing have led to rapid household and community spread as public officials grapple with how to protect workers.

“We’re seeing transmission in industrial settings and essential workplaces, and there were a number of outbreaks in food processing and transportation and logistics,” said Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown. “While many people are sitting in the comfort of their homes and going to grocery stores, it’s an Amazon worker, a trucker in Brampton, or someone in a food processing plant that made sure they had their food.”

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The region has the highest cumulative rate of COVID-19 cases in Ontario, at 1,200 cases per 100,000 people. The area has seen 116 total workplace outbreaks, more than the number that have occurred in long-term care home and school outbreaks combined. Manufacturing and industrial facilities account for 34 per cent of the workplace outbreaks, while retail and food processing make up 14 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, according to data from Peel Region.

Food processing plants have been at the heart of massive outbreaks elsewhere. In Alberta, more than 1,500 workers were infected at a meat-processing plant, making it the site of the largest single-facility outbreak in Canada. Three deaths were linked to that occurrence.

In Quebec, where half of all outbreaks are work-related, the Legault government prolonged its closing of restaurants, bars and fitness centres by an extra month in most of the province in late October. The province also said it would send 700 inspectors to enforce preventative measures and regulations in businesses. But the number of workplace outbreaks has continued to climb for 10 consecutive weeks, according to Quebec’s public-health institute.

Details about the workplace outbreaks and related deaths in Peel are few. In September, the region experienced its largest workplace outbreak when 61 workers tested positive at a business in Mississauga. However, the public-health unit will not identify the employer or explain how the virus spread. The outbreak led to 49 additional infections with household and close contacts, according to a recent report by Peel.

More than one-quarter of all cases linked to workplace outbreaks have been reported in the past two months. The criteria for an outbreak is two or more cases with a clear link to the workplace, such as workers sharing the same area during the same shift, within a 14-day period.

Last week, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie pointed to another large, undisclosed workplace outbreak and Thanksgiving celebrations as major sources of recent cases.

Mr. Brown supports identifying the locations of workplace outbreaks, saying such transparency is key to helping curb the spread. In addition to sharing information with residents, he said that local businesses that cater to workers in the area, such as restaurants and stores, could take additional protective measures if they knew about outbreaks.

“If there’s even a single case in a school or in a long-term care facility, they tell the public,” Mr. Brown said. “But in Mississauga we had a factory with more than 60 cases and we still didn’t release the name,” he added. The name of the business wasn’t released because of a local public health decision.

Across the province, the Ministry of Labour has issued 37 COVID-related stop work orders, which are used when there is an immediate risk of worker injury. The orders require the business to halt operations until the issue is addressed. Seven of those orders were issued to businesses in Peel.

A lack of physical distancing in lunch rooms and other common areas, improper mask use, carpooling with other employees and failure to conduct an on-site screening process to prevent symptomatic workers from entering a facility are the leading causes of infection in workplaces, according to Peel Public Health.

But as COVID-19 infections rapidly climb, contact tracing is becoming more difficult. Public-health unit resources need to be diverted to address only the most severe cases, according to Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health, Lawrence Loh. And workplaces are slipping through the cracks.

“The vast majority of our workplaces have been taking precautions and are working with Peel public health, but I must be clear, increasingly we are seeing less compliance.” Dr. Loh said at a recent news conference. “In protecting workers, we know that the absence of worker protections and paid sick leave does result in outbreaks because, people will show up because they’re choosing between their livelihood and their lives.”

The province is sending Peel region up to 70 additional case and contact management workers to assist with tracing to understand where people are becoming infected.

Peel’s local health unit is also prohibiting all non-essential visitors to workplaces. The region recently introduced fines of $5,000 a day for business owners and operators that fail to implement measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

But industrial workers don’t have the option to work from home and more measures are needed to ensure their safety, according to the Warehouse Workers Centre (WWC), a Brampton-based group that educates workers in the sector on their rights. Spokesperson Gagandeep Kaur said that stricter regulations and increased inspections are necessary to ensure that industrial businesses are investing in preventative measures, such as protective equipment and physical distancing.

The WWC launched about a month before the virus spread across Canada to advocate for better working conditions for labourers, provide support with workers' compensation claims and offer legal assistance on employer disputes. Since COVID-19 flared in March, the majority of calls that the group receives are from workers who have lost their jobs owing to the pandemic as well as individuals with concerns about employers failing to implement safety measures.

"They are going to work and they are unsure of whether they will be safe in the coming days, or whether they will get sick, and they will make others sick in their houses or their families,” Ms. Kaur said. “Still, they really have no choice because you cannot just stay home without getting paid for long.”

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