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A cargo ship sits docked at Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. on Jan. 10, 2012.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A $4.8-billion (U.S.) aluminum smelter expansion project, hailed as one of the largest private-sector investments in British Columbia in many years, began production last June in Kitimat. But the union representing 800 workers at the Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. plant say the owners cut corners in the rush to get the the modernization project online, resulting in a workplace that is both dangerous and unsanitary.

Unifor Local 2301 president Sean O'Driscoll said he has asked provincial workplace safety inspectors to look into his members' concerns that the facility shortchanged workers on washrooms and safe areas to cool down from the smelter's potrooms.

"Who spends $5-billion to build a huge facility and forgets to put in enough bathrooms? That's the frustration we are facing," Mr. O'Driscoll said.

"We contacted WorkSafe BC and said, we have deplorable sanitary conditions in here. We have got members basically relieving themselves – urinating and defecating – outside the work buildings or in the basements," Mr. O'Driscoll said in an interview.

The union says its safety concerns relate to unrelenting overtime demands. The smelter operation has been increasing production, and since the fall, members have been required to work steady 12-hour shifts.

"People are getting fatigued and stressed out and we feel that is a big health and safety issue there."

Although the project was welcomed as an economic boon to the region, Rio Tinto Alcan has struggled with a sustained downturn in commodity prices; the smelter project was behind schedule and went $1.5-billion over budget. The company has been dogged by complaints about environmental standards because the expansion increases pollution in the Kitimat airshed.

Mr. O'Driscoll said the union is happy to have the jobs, but it has launched an online petition to draw attention to the challenging working conditions.

"The Kitimat modernization project is a positive thing for the community. These guys are not complaining about that. Any economic development in the northwest is welcome, opportunities for good-paying jobs and so on, but not at any cost. You've got to build it right."

WorkSafe BC inspectors have written up eight inspection reports and issued a number of compliance orders since the new smelter began operations, but most of the agency's concerns relate to indoor air quality.

Rio Tinto spokesman Kevin Dobbin said Wednesday the company is working to address the workers' concerns.

"We've just invested $4.8-billion U.S. in a brand new smelter in Kitimat – we just reached full production in March. Obviously, with anything new, there are some kinks."

He said there are two sets of office washrooms in the reduction area – where the potrooms are – and four porta-potties. The company just installed 30 new drinking stations at the plant. However, he acknowledged the company needs to do more. He said by June, the plan is to install eight new "cool rooms" to allow workers to recover from their shifts as well as more toilets.

"We have been working with the union – in fact we met with them three times last week. So we were a bit surprised by the online letter campaign because we do have an action plan to address the issues they have raised."

WorkSafe BC spokesman Scott McCloy said officials have encouraged the company and the union to work out their differences on the sanitation issues.

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