Health officials warned six years ago that thousands of workers brought to northern B.C. to build pipelines and dams and operate mines could overwhelm the region’s medical system.
Now the COVID-19 crisis has raised serious concerns about the increased risks of industry activity, especially from employees housed in work camps who frequently rotate in and out of the region.
The BC Building Trades Council has called on companies to scale down operations to reduce the number of workers housed in camps.
“We are calling for remote-camp megaprojects in B.C. to be tooled down to all but essential or critical-path work,” Andrew Mercier, executive director of the union umbrella organization, said last week. “We need to flatten the curve and alleviate pressure on the rural health care systems.”
The council, which represents 35,000 unionized construction workers including members at Site C and the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, said health and safety come first.
And on Monday, mayors in southeastern B.C. expressed concerns that mining giant Teck Resources’ operations — including a camp housing hundreds of workers — created a major risk that COVID-19 would spread in the region.
Northern Health warned outside workers could swamp system
Concerns about the risks are well-founded.
Northern Health’s response to Coastal GasLink’s 2014 project application warned the region’s “shadow population” of transient workers could easily overwhelm the local health care system.
“Northern Health’s funding allocation is based on the resident population only and therefore available primary care services to the temporary workforce can be assumed to be zero,” a working group headed by Barb Oke, regional manager of health and resource development, said in an April 2014 response to Coastal GasLink’s environmental assessment application. The company is building a controversial pipeline to carry gas from the province’s northeast to the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat.
“Given that primary care resources for the resident population are already at capacity in many communities,” the response reads, “Northern Health would be looking to companies to provide on-site primary and preventative care services (for both physical and mental health) to their temporary workforce.”
The warning has taken on new urgency as the provincial health officials try to slow the spread of COVID-19. There have been five confirmed cases of the virus in the region, at least four of which were contracted and diagnosed elsewhere.
Last week corporations announced that they would reduce large-scale construction projects in the north, including LNG Canada’s plant and BC Hydro’s Site C dam near Fort St. John, in response to the pandemic.
The companies said they will limit the number of people coming in and out of the area, reduce staff and implement work-from-home policies where possible.
But that still leaves a large number of people living and working in close proximity. Many of them travel in and out of the camps every few weeks, increasing the chances of spreading the virus.
BC Hydro said Wednesday it will scale back operations at Site C to “essential work and critical milestones.” While the company says the number of workers on site fluctuates seasonally, in January it reported 4,359 workers at Site C, about a quarter of them from outside the province.
David Conway, community relations manager for the project, said there are typically about 1,800 people in the work camp on two-week rotations. That was reduced to 940 by Monday — with 16 of them in isolation because they showed symptoms of COVID-19.
“Over the coming days, BC Hydro will work with project contractors and unions to safely scale back certain construction activities at the project site. One of the areas the project will continue to make a priority is work required to achieve river diversion in fall 2020,” Conway said.
LNG Canada said Tuesday it will cut the workforce building its LNG plant in Kitimat in half. According to Kitimat Mayor Philip Germuth, camps associated with the project normally house close to 1,600 people.
“Essential work that will continue during this time includes seasonal activities that must take place within regulatory windows, activities which have commenced and need to be finished to safely secure the area and unloading of material delivery vessels at the port,” the company said in a news release.
“This work will be conducted with additional safety, health and hygiene precautions that follow recommended social distancing protocols and all other current recommendations for best practices.”
Concern over Coastal GasLink pipeline crews and camps
Less clear is how the pandemic will impact construction on the TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Last month the RCMP arrested 28 people and removed camps on the Morice Forest Service Road that had prevented pipeline workers from entering the area.
On its website, Coastal GasLink names construction as one of its “critical” operations that will continue along the route. The company says it will implement protocols to stem the spread of COVID-19, such as working primarily with local operators, enhanced health screening and restricting business travel. Regional offices will remain open, while urban offices will be closed, it says.
According to its website, 1,100 workers were on the job along the pipeline route at the end of February. The site said the number would be reduced "significantly" due to spring breakup, when construction and transport are more difficult.*
But the company could not say how many people are currently working on the pipeline route.
One company providing medical services to remote work camps says it is providing additional health services and increased screening of workers.
“We have scaled up, because we’re doing advanced screening,” said Dr. Allen Holmes, founder of Iridia Medical, which supplies medical services to six mining camps in northern B.C. “We’re doing temperature checks on people arriving into camp, we’re doing screening questionnaires, we’re doing follow up on people that have got any symptoms. So, we’re up-staffing to meet what anticipated needs are.”
Holmes said that shutting down operating mines, unlike construction projects, means putting the project into “care and maintenance mode” to prevent environmental disasters like tailings pond failures. “In a construction project you could certainly delay, but for most operating sites, to just leave everybody abandoned is not in the best interests of anybody.”
Mayors in southeast warn Teck increasing COVID-19 risks in region
Teck Resources is continuing to operate its four coal mines in the Elk Valley in southeastern B.C. and houses hundreds of employees in its work camp. On its website, the Vancouver-based mining giant says it is responding to COVID-19 with measures like limiting face-to-face contact and increased hand washing.
However, mayors and medical professionals in the area fear that may not be enough.
“In consultation with health service providers in the Elk Valley, we have concluded that the most significant danger of this pandemic reaching our doors is through transient travel that occurs daily in the Elk Valley,” says a letter website to Teck Resources signed by the mayors of Elkford, Sparwood and Fernie, as well as a director for the regional district. “Local government recognizes the importance of Teck Resources to our valley, however in this case the COVID-19 pandemic is far more important than any operational requirements that Teck Resources may have.”
In a news release issued by the province Saturday, health officials confirmed that rules restricting gatherings to fewer than 50 people do not apply to construction projects.
“While this order does not apply to construction sites as a whole, the public health officer is directing employers to take all necessary precautions to minimize the risks of COVID-19 transmission and illness to themselves and their employees,” the release says.
Work camps are regulated under the Public Health Act, which dictates things like the minimum number of toilets per worker and number of people per room. “An operator must notify a medical health officer within 24 hours after it comes to the attention of the operator that there is an outbreak or occurrence of illness, above the incident level that is normally expected, at an industrial camp,” the act says.
Holmes said work camp medical staff are familiar with illnesses like gastro-intestinal viruses, which spread quickly given the close quarters. Protocols such as enhanced cleaning and isolation for infected individuals have always been in place and have been stepped up with the threat of COVID-19, he added.
WorkSafeBC dictates what kind of medical resources must be available at remote camps based on the number of employees and risk associated with the work.
Holmes said his company also provides paramedics and nurses in camps, in addition to on-call doctors who can be flown in or offer remote support.
“These big camps, they go above and beyond,” he said, adding that camps with more than 100 workers have an advanced-care paramedic and those with several hundred workers are also staffed by nurses. “It depends on the client, it depends on where it is, but once you’re up into a couple hundred people, then it’s nice to have at least two [nurses] available.”
Kitimat mayor Germuth said lessons were learned when Rio Tinto’s Kitimat Modernization Project began nearly a decade ago and the emergency room was flooded with camp workers who didn’t have local family doctors.
“That completely changed everything. From then on, Northern Health has required that all of the worker accommodation facilities near the community have to have their own medical staff,” he says. “The accommodation providers have enacted a strict policy that workers are forbidden to use public health facilities.”
That’s only true to a point, Holmes said. While camp workers shouldn’t attend local health care facilities for minor symptoms, hospitals may be called upon in more serious health emergencies, such as heart attacks and respiratory problems.
“The hospital never turns us away, but we do our very best to keep everything we can in camp,” he says.
Coastal GasLink acknowledged risk to health system
In its March 2014 application, Coastal GasLink notes that residents of northern B.C. “tend not to be as healthy as residents in the south.” It included chronic respiratory disease — an underlying condition that could increase the risk of COVID-19 — among the five greatest health concerns for the region.
“Industrial camps can also negatively affect families and communities by placing stress on community health services and infrastructure,” the report states.
The application notes that local health care facilities generally run at “very high capacity almost all of the time” and that primary care access is a concern in rural and remote areas. It points to hospitals in Smithers, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Kitimat, Terrace and Prince George as having “approached or experienced full capacity over the last five years.”
Speaking in Terrace last May, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced that the city’s Mills Memorial Hospital would be replaced. The new $447.5-million facility will have 78 beds, up from 44 beds. It is not expected to be complete until 2024.
In an email, Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc said she believes the community is close to meeting its medical needs, something backed up by statistics obtained from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Across the region, the number of doctors in most communities has remained constant or increased since 2014. In Terrace, the number of practising physicians has increased by 50 per cent while in Smithers it has doubled in the past six years. In Kitimat, the number has remained roughly the same.
However, as recently as December, Coastal GasLink noted the continued pressure on local medical services in a status report.
“Coastal GasLink will continue to connect with local emergency management facilities about potential local paramedical capacity challenges and to continue to inform about construction activity timelines and peak workforce durations,” the company says. “Although the general emphasis of the project is to hire local first, if additional resources are required, Coastal GasLink will work with contracted service providers to minimize local service gaps.”
Germuth says he’s happy to see proactive measures taken by both industry and the community in general as the northern town’s streets empty.
“Looking at the traffic in town, it’s almost non-existent now,” he says. “As a community, we’re taking every precaution we can to minimize the threat of COVID-19. We just implore everyone to take this threat very seriously and to do your part in keeping everyone safe and well.”
*Story updated on March 26 at 9:45 a.m. to include additional information about workers on the job along the pipeline route.