When workplace safety inspectors toured the United Poultry operation in Vancouver early in 2019, they found unsafe working conditions where workers regularly cleaned machines while the equipment was running, supervisors who were inadequately trained to ensure the safety of their workers, and a required workplace health and safety committee that never met.
Working in the meat-packing sector was already classed as a high-risk occupation by WorkSafeBC before a string of COVID-19 outbreaks at United Poultry and other facilities brought working conditions to light, and officials regard the kinds of contraventions recorded at the plant last year as routine.
"The concerns raised at United Poultry in previous inspections – that resulted in a prevention officer issuing orders – are not uncommon when looked at relative to other manufacturing operations,” said Ivy Yuen, a media relations officer for WorkSafeBC, the provincial workplace safety agency.
Those working conditions are now in the spotlight. Across the country, slaughterhouses are emerging as pandemic hot zones, and even the federal inspectors who provide oversight in the facilities are not immune – as of May 12, 39 inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
B.C. health officials have vowed to impose provincial COVID-19 safety rules after outbreaks at three federally regulated poultry plants, including United Poultry. More than 100 cases have been traced back to those three plants. (Officials from United Poultry did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Still, Premier John Horgan is calling on the federal government to require CFIA officers who are already on the ground in meat-packing facilities – for the purpose of ensuring meat is safe for consumption – to enforce COVID-19 safety precautions.
“I think it’s a national responsibility,” he told reporters during a media availability last Wednesday. “I would suggest that if people are hired by governments, provincial or federal, to ensure the health and safety of what goes on inside a plant, that part and parcel of that would be to identify or flag, particularly during a pandemic, when they see workers that may not be well enough to be in the workplace.”
More than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the Cargill meat-processing plant in southern Alberta, and outbreaks have been reported at similar facilities across the country.
“The meat system is actually the one part of the food system that is collapsing under this [pandemic], because there’s just no way to really retrofit it to protect against COVID,” said Lenore Newman, the director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
Prof. Newman says the pandemic has exposed the need for an overhaul of Canada’s industrial meat production. “It’s not really individual producers at fault, because the entire system for the last 50 years has been geared toward producing meat as cheaply as possible.”
The result is Dickensian working conditions, with low pay, close quarters and a gruelling pace, she said.
Mr. Horgan has cited United Poultry’s workplace system as one that doesn’t work, where workers were coming to work with COVID-19 symptoms because they couldn’t afford to take sick days.
Jean-Michel Laurin, president and chief executive of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, said his sector has been taking its direction from CFIA on how to improve safety measures in the face of the pandemic.
“We are an essential service, we need to continue to operate, but to do that we need to make sure we have a safe workplace,” he said.
Numerous changes have been made, he said. Some operations have installed tents for lunchrooms, or have offered workers personal protective equipment. Production has slowed down, and he said consumers will likely pay higher prices in the future.
“Those added costs – the PPE, all the physical adjustments we’ve made, and the loss of productivity – at some point, that’s going to have an impact on consumers.”
He said the COVID-19 outbreaks in B.C. and other provinces have forced each company to grapple with how to ensure workers stay home when they are sick.
“We’ve learned from those instances, the companies are asking themselves about what they can do.”
Christine Carnaffan, a spokesperson for CFIA, said her department does not have authority to suspend operations at a federally regulated plant solely because of a COVID-19 outbreak. She said federal inspectors are there to enforce the Safe Food for Canadians Act: Their authority relates to food safety concerns, and there is no evidence that COVID-19 can contaminate food.
Vicki Burns, of the National Farmers Union, said the COVID-19 outbreaks are highlighting working conditions that consumers rarely see, and Canada needs reforms to better protect workers.
“We really need to move to a system which we used to have, with smaller slaughterhouses in each province that would meet local needs," she said. “It’s time to really look at that system, because what’s happening now is awful – the safety of the workers is compromised.”
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