Two meat-packing plants in southern Alberta have given rise to nearly one in six of Alberta’s 3400 cases of COVID-19. These two outbreaks demonstrate how Alberta’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system is failing workers due to inherent shortcomings as well as the short-sighted politics of the provincial government. In this analysis we examine what went wrong at the two meatpacking plants, what it tells us about the inadequacy of OHS policy in Alberta and how the incidents could have been avoided.
Meatpacking in Alberta
Earlier this week, the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River closed after one worker died and 480 are ill from COVID-19. Approximately 140 related cases caused by community transmission are also being investigated, including three spouses of Cargill employees who work in a local retirement home. Over in Brooks, the JBS plant is down to a single shift after over 120 workers contracted the disease and hundreds of others have refused to come to work due to fear of getting the disease. So far, one JBS worker has died from COVID.
Working conditions in a meatpacking plant are grueling and dangerous. The work is fast and physically demanding and the worksite is crowded and hazardous. Workers typically stand elbow-to-elbow, wielding knives and blades while the assembly line of carcasses never ceases. Employers organize work this way to maximize profitability. One side effect of this job design is that viruses and bacteria are easily spread from worker to worker.
Employers have also ground down wages and working conditions over the past 25 years. The majority of workers in meatpacking plants today are recent immigrants and temporary migrant workers. Many of the plant workers live in smaller rural communities where there are fewer community supports and the newcomers are often isolated. Some workers commute from larger urban centres. Although represented by a union, the 2,000 workers at Cargill broadly fit this pattern.
Occupational Health and Safety in Alberta
Alberta relies primarily on the internal responsibility system (IRS) for ensuring workplaces are safe for workers. The IRS makes employers and workers jointly responsible for ensuring safety. The IRS is premised on the assumption that both employers and workers desire safe workplaces. There is a long history of Canadian employers ignoring and hiding hazards in order to keep making money, which suggests the assumption of a shared interest in safety is false.
In theory, government inspections are supposed to keep employers honest, but inspections are rare and employers face little chance of being sanctioned even if they get caught breaking the rules. Not surprisingly, employers don’t tend to take OHS very seriously and only control hazards where the control is cheaper than the injury. Workers know this and often find themselves fearful of exercising their safety rights.
Academic research suggests Alberta’s OHS system does not work very well. A 2016 survey of 2,000 Alberta workers found that one in five workers (408,000 people) were injured on the job the previous year, including 170,700 who were seriously injured. Only about 30% of these serious injuries are reported. This data is broadly consistent with other studies of Alberta injury completed in 2002 and 2018. These long-standing shortcomings in Alberta’s OHS system set the stage for significant levels of illness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workplace Safety Failures
Alberta’s approach to managing COVID-19 in workplaces has failed the workers in meat-packing plants in three ways. First, Alberta’s OHS enforcement regime didn't work. The government inspectors conducted a safety inspection via Facetime, with company officials videoing areas of the plant. Importantly, the kill floor (an important site of close worker contact) was not in operation during the inspection. Based on this inspection, the government officials deemed the infection control measures taken by the employer to be sufficient. The union—which had been expressing concerns since the first COVID-19 cases appeared at the facility weeks prior—was not informed of the inspection.
While a virtual inspection is wholly inadequate, a physical inspection may not have changed the outcome. Remember that the IRS assumes all parties have similar interests in safety. This assumption means inspectors often defer to employers in deciding which protections are reasonably practicable to implement. In this case, Cargill implemented masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) after demands by the union but refused to slow or temporarily cease production, reduce the number of workers in a physical space, or alter the workflow to protect workers from infection—all changes sought by the workers and their union. Employers prefer PPE because it is cheaper and does not interfere with production or profit. OHS is weakly positioned to challenge employer decisions about safety, and so enforcement officers are likely to agree that PPE is sufficient. Often, as in this case, it is not.
The second failing is operational and involves gaps that appear to exist between OHS and the public health officials from Alberta Health Services (AHS). Each agency has a unique role to play in protecting Albertans. In a pandemic, these roles overlap and no structures have been put into place for handling that fact. As a result, gaps emerge.
For example, OHS is concerned solely with what happens at work. Consequently, OHS ignores non-work factors that create or magnify hazards at work. For example, many Cargill workers (especially the migrant workers) have inadequate (i.e. crowded) housing, in part, due to the low wages paid by the employer. This increases the risk of COVID transmission at home which, in turn, magnifies the risk of an outbreak at the worksite. Similarly, the plant is located 7km outside town. Workers are forced to carpool because there is no public transit. Again, this factor magnifies the risk of transmission. Addressing these issues is necessary to protect workers’ health but falls outside the domain of OHS.
Public health officials, on the other hand, do deal with non-work factors. But they have little power to direct change (e.g. establishment of public transit, provision of adequate housing). Further, public health officials are not necessarily well versed in job design and employment dynamics. A lack of experience with specific industries can mean public health officials may not be able to counter employers’ claims that employers are doing everything they can. Culturally, many non-labour experts have difficulty grasping that employers explicitly and intentionally trade workers’ health for profit. Further, while commenting on housing and transportation patterns is legitimate discourse in the context of trying to reduce the spread of a disease, this discourse essentially gives the employer a ready-made argument to dispute workers’ compensation claims (i.e. the injury did not arise from or occur during work), allowing them to evade responsibility.
The third, and likely most important, failing is the political direction under which both sets of officials work. The Kenney government has sent very clear signals from the beginning that its priority is the uninterrupted flow of meat products in the market. At the end of March, Kenney chastised federal meat inspectors for not entering a smaller meat processing plant north of Calgary due to COVID concerns and threatened to send in provincial authorities to do the inspectors’ jobs. At the time, he spoke about the importance of maintaining the meat supply. Throughout the emerging situation at Cargill and JBS, Kenney and his cabinet ministers have repeatedly downplayed safety concerns.
The political decision to prioritize production over safety sends a clear signal to the employer that they can get away with half measures. And it sends a message, either directly or indirectly, to enforcement officers at OHS and AHS to not take actions that will unduly antagonize Cargill or JBS. And, now that the situation has exploded into a crisis, Premier Jason Kenney continues to downplay its significance. For example, on April 22, Kenney highlighting that only two of 200 meat processing plants in the province are affected, calling this a success. This claim is disingenuous, given that these two plants, which have over 4,500 workers combined and produce 70% of Canada’s beef supply, dwarf all the other plants in the province. The system’s existing structural weaknesses were amplified by a brazen and irresponsible political strategy to protect the meatpacking employers.
Worse yet, much of the government messaging implies it is the workers’ fault for carpooling and living in crowded conditions. They forget these are vulnerable newcomers to Canada who are paid very little to do difficult work and who do not choose their working and living conditions. They willfully ignore reports of workers who tested positive for COVID being told to come to work by the employer during their quarantine period as long as they were not showing symptoms.
The COVID outbreaks in these plants, like all workplace injuries, were mostly preventable. Instead of looking out for workers’ health and safety, Alberta’s government decided to prioritize production over safety. OHS officials were unwilling to step in and correct the power imbalance between employers and workers when they had the chance. The lack of action left the workers only one recourse: walk out from work, which is what hundreds of JBS workers did.
OHS has opened investigations into the safety protocols at each plant. While many labour advocates are calling for fatality investigations or even criminal prosecutions, it is unlikely that Cargill managers will face meaningful sanctions. After all, OHS green-lit Cargill’s safety efforts, declaring them adequate. Given this prior involvement, it is difficult to feel confident in the OHS investigation.
It is useful to remember that Canada’s contemporary OHS laws were the product of workers taking action into their own hands when governments wouldn’t protect them. This situation at JBS and Cargill once again demonstrates what happens when an OHS system fails so dramatically to protect worker safety: many workers are injured, some die, and the rest rise up.
Photo courtesy of UFCW Local 401.