The story of Alberta’s response to COVID-19 is one of success in the community and failure in a growing number of workplaces.
As I write this column on Sunday night, the provincial government has reported 427 new cases of COVID-19 and a total of 4,480 cases since testing began in earnest a five weeks ago.
“The majority of the numbers we’re seeing right now are linked to the big [workplace] outbreaks,” acknowledged Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw in one of her recent press briefings.
Hundreds of workers have tested positive for the virus at the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River, the JBS meatpacking plant in Brooks and at dozens of long-term and continuing care centres across the province.
As a leader in Alberta’s labour movement, I can tell you this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The provincial government has promised to start reporting other workplace outbreaks sometime in the next two weeks. But unions affiliated with the Alberta Federation of Labour have told me that dozens and dozens of their members have tested positive while working in jobs that have been deemed essential.
Others are being sent home from these jobs without testing, even though they may have been exposed to co-workers who have tested positive or are exhibiting symptoms themselves.
In addition to meatpacking plants and long-term care facilities, the workplaces with new positive cases include warehouses, other food processing plants, oilsands work camps and grocery stores.
So far, hundreds of Albertans have been infected at work. Dozens of these workers have been hospitalized. And three have died — giving Alberta the heartbreaking and shameful distinction of recording the first COVID-19 workplace fatalities in Canada.
Our province’s failure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces is bad enough on its own. But if we don’t get a handle on the problem, the failure to contain the virus in workplaces may also imperil our success in the broader community and push back the timeline for reopening our economy safely.
The obvious question is “why?” Why are we having so much more trouble stopping the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces than in the broader community? And why are we having more work-related infections than our neighbours in places like B.C.?
From my perspective the answer is clear: here in Alberta, we’ve failed to acknowledge that public health and workplace health are fundamentally different things and that, therefore, they have to be approached in fundamentally different ways.
To get a sense of how badly the Alberta government has messed up in this regard, it’s useful to look at the report of the special commission set up to draw lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak in Ontario.
One of the commission’s main findings was that lives could have been saved and the spread of infection stopped more quickly if workplace health and safety principles and practices had been integrated into the emergency response. Instead they were “sidelined” and “siloed” in favour of public health approaches that didn’t consider the unique constraints imposed by work environments (and the unique power employers have over their workplaces).
Specifically, the commission concluded that workplace health and safety officials should have been included in the government’s emergency response command structure; that workers should have been listened to instead of ignored; and that labour department officials should have been directed to conduct proactive inspections, instead of allowing employers, including employers at public health facilities, to regulate themselves.
The commission also concluded that employers should have been required to consult more extensively with unions and joint worker-employer workplace health and safety committees; that steps should have been taken to encourage workers and employers to view infection control through the lens of “health and safety culture;” and that the government should have been more skeptical of notions that all employers come to the table with goodwill and best intentions about safety and that safety is an equally shared responsibility between workers and employers. (When it’s clear that not all employers have the best of intentions and that employers have control over practices that affect safety in ways that workers do not.)
Perhaps most importantly, the SARS commission concluded that governments and employers should have been required to embrace the “precautionary principle,” which stipulates that when lives are at risk we should err on the side of caution, even if action may seem premature and all the facts aren’t in yet or there are competing interests (like industry profits).
How has the Alberta government fared in relation to the best-practice benchmarks set out by the SARS commission? In a word, its performance has been dismal.
The labour minister has not been included on the premier’s emergency measures cabinet committee.
Calls to the government hotline about workplace violations of COVID-related directives are not answered by workplace health and safety inspectors, but by public health staff. They know little or nothing about workplace health and safety rules and have no power (or political backing) to do anything about employer violations.
Workers at meatpacking plants and long-term care facilities have not been consulted by employers about their concerns related to COVID-19 in the workplace. At Cargill, the workers’ pleas to suspend operations at the plant were ignored for three weeks, and the plant was only shut down after a worker died.
The labour department conducted no proactive coronavirus-related health and safety inspections of worksites (public or private) in the province. In the case of the Cargill plant, an inspection was only conducted after the outbreak had begun, and even then it was a “virtual” FaceTime inspection of the facility with a company manager holding the camera.
As for consultation with unions on health and safety, there has been none in the meatpacking plants and very little in other workplaces. The government has watered down workplace health and safety committees so much that they have essentially ceased to exist outside of unionized workplaces and the construction industry (which, due to decades of worker activism, has a stronger safety culture than most other industries). No other province has sidelined these important committees more aggressively than Alberta under the United Conservative Party.
Employers, especially in meatpacking, are being allowed to continue providing “attendance bonuses”which provide incentives for employees to come to work even when they’re sick — the very antithesis of a positive health and safety culture.
Alberta’s public health authorities have also allowed themselves to be played by employers who clearly are not putting safety first.
Instead of imposing consequences for violations, public health officials have been providing cover for employers who continue to put their workers at risk. And instead of demanding more from employers who actually control what happens in the workplace, they’ve been using the notion of “shared responsibility” to blame the workers themselves.
The most outrageous example of this was when Hinshaw suggested the virus was spreading among Cargill workers in part because employees were carpooling to work and living in cramped accommodations, rather than pointing the finger at the employer who continued to have employees working elbow to elbow on the production line for weeks after workers started to test positive. Employees at the plant also noted a lack of protective equipment and charged that for two crucial weeks the company provided masks to managers, but not to production workers.
Finally, the precautionary principle, which is the foundation of good workplace health and safety practice, is simply being ignored.
While other provinces like B.C. issue orders suspending operations at places like meat packing plants when positive cases have been reported, in Alberta the government sits on the sidelines waiting for the employers to do the right thing (which, in the case of Cargill, only happened after workers started to die).
In fact — and it boggles my mind to say it — the Alberta government has not reprimanded, fined or shut down a single workplace in the province for violations of public health “guidance” — even though many are clearly doing less than the bare minimum to keep their workers safe.
Many Albertans are saying the UCP is the worst party to be in charge of their province at this time because they don’t believe in the public services that we’re relying upon at the moment or working toward the diversification our economy so clearly needs as the future for our oil and gas sector dims.
Those things are true.
But another reason why they’re the worst possible party to be in charge at this moment is their almost pathological unwillingness to consider anything proposed, or even influenced, by workers or unions.
Sadly, modern and effective workplace health and safety policies — which have been shaped by decades of worker and union research and advocacy — fall into that category.
The bottom line is that the Jason Kenney government has a huge blind spot when it comes to workplace health and safety, and it’s undermining efforts to save lives and stop the spread of the coronavirus in Alberta.
If they don’t get over themselves and start embracing best practice approaches to infection control and worker safety during a pandemic we’re all going to pay a heavy price. Some will pay that price with their incomes and jobs as outbreaks continue and the safe reopening of our economy recedes further into the future. Others will pay the price with their health, and still other with their lives.
The time has come to crack down on employers and workplaces that are not doing their part to keep their employees safe. The government may have the power to label these workers as essential; but that doesn’t mean they should be treated as expendable.