Cargill broke OHS rules and locked worker reps out of COVID-19 investigation

Management at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River violated the Occupational Health and Safety Act by shutting workers out of the investigation into the plant's coronavirus outbreak, according to documents provided to Progress Alberta.

The Cargill plant is the single largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America with two confirmed deaths linked to the facility. Nearly half of the workers at the 2000 worker facility have gotten the disease.

Documents show that the on-site Occupational Health and Safety or OHS officer has ruled that the investigation conducted by Cargill into the outbreak made no attempt to engage workers or their representatives on the joint work site health and safety committee.

“Cargill has not taken workplace health and safety seriously to the extent that they haven’t even taken government orders seriously, resulting in this demand from OHS. This is an escalation on the part of OHS,” said United Food and Commercial Workers local 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes. UFCW local 401 is the union that represents the workers at the Cargill plant in High River. 

 “If no proper investigation has been done, how can we be sure that the workplace is safe now? How can we be sure there won’t be a further outbreak?“ said Hughes.

UFCW 401 had raised health and safety concerns about the reopening of the plant on May 4 and has filed for a stop-work order with OHS and an unfair labour practice complaint against both Cargill and the government of Alberta

The government OHS officer also found that Cargill did not provide the government with full information when they filed their first report, and is demanding that Cargill provide the missing data, which includes:

  • The time, place, and nature of worker exposure to COVID-19
  • An investigation into the circumstances of worker exposure to COVID-19 
  • A report outlining the circumstances of the outbreak and the corrective actions taken to prevent workers from being infected
  • A copy of that report to be provided to joint work site health and safety committee

The original compliance date for this reporting was May 1--and Cargill did not comply. The Alberta government has given them an extension until May 18.

The health and safety committee at Cargill exists thanks to union victories in collective bargaining. Legislation introduced by the Alberta NDP made these health and safety committees mandatory for workplaces with more than 20 employees but the UCP rolled that requirement back on January 31, 2020. Alberta is now, again, the only province in Canada without mandated health and safety committees at large employers. 

The entire OHS system is based on the concept of internal responsibility: the worker and the employer work together to ensure a safe and disease free workplace. But the system doesn’t account for the significant power imbalance between Cargill and its employees, many of whom are temporary foreign workers who could be deported if they stop working at the plant. 

“It’s very concerning that workers were not a part of the investigation into the coronavirus outbreak at their own plant,” said Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, the executive director of the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre.

“These joint health and safety committees are an important mechanism for workers to meaningfully participate in their own health and safety and make sure that they are able to go home safely to their families at the end of the day.”