What happened in Canada’s biggest beef plants this spring?

With provinces re-opening their economies and concerns about a second wave, what can other businesses and organizations learn from Alberta's packing plants?

As Alberta shut down schools and banned children from public playgrounds in March, packing plant workers started contacting their union, said Michael Hughes. Those workers saw a contradiction between kids not being able to play on monkey bars and plant employees being told to show up for their shifts.

Hughes is a senior communications and education representative with Local 401 of United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing workers in JBS’s Brooks facility, Cargill’s High River plant, as well as many other people in meat packing and food processing facilities.

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When reached for an interview in mid-May, Hughes was handing out leaflets just outside the High River plant. Asked what he would change about the last few weeks if he could, he became audibly emotional as he recalled his conversation with the family of Benito Quesada, the shop steward at the High River plant who died of COVID-19.

“I just can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

Cargill “should have bloody well listened to us. They should have shut the plant down. They should have provided PPE immediately and not operated until they had it,” said Hughes.

Within the Brooks and High River plants, Hughes says management acted too slowly to put in protocols and slow the lines, which would have allowed workers to spread out.

While many meat and poultry plants across North America struggled to slow infections, Hughes points out that not every plant has had issues. The Olymel pork plant in Red Deer, Alta., hadn’t had any positive cases among its workers at press time. Hughes attributed this to plant management acting more quickly, and a more open dialogue with the union. For example, Olymel implemented protocols around bussing employees to work early on, he said, and held joint health and safety meeting daily as soon as the pandemic hit.

Rob Meijer, spokesperson for JBS, wrote via email that the company has followed the advice of public health officials from day one.

“We have a comprehensive health and safety program in place to ensure our employees are safe and feel safe in our workplace,” said Meijer. “Everyone bears responsibility in the fight against COVID-19. In the case of our Brooks facility it starts with the company and includes every single team member, their families, health and labour officials, and the broader community as a whole.”

John Keating, head of Cargill’s protein supply chain and business operations in North America, said he was on a call with Alberta Health Services early on, going through the COVID-19 protocols. Cargill has the same protocols at all of its plants, grounded in guidelines from agencies such as Alberta Health Services and the Center for Disease Control.

Keating is “100 per cent confident” that High River, along with Cargill’s other facilities, can now run without putting employees at risk.

“We have put in all the same processes, when it comes to temperature checking. We have put in all the same physical barriers. We continue to learn,” he said.

One thing that has become apparent is that the disease progresses very quickly in some people. Some employees who had a normal temperature at the beginning of their shifts started to feel ill partway through the day, Keating said. At the nurse’s office, a second temperature check would reveal a fever.

Cargill added a temperature check mid-shift, in addition to the one at the beginning of the shift, Keating said. Keating expects practices such as the temperature checks to stick until a vaccine is widely available.

Cargill did face challenges importing masks into Canada earlier this spring, Keating said, as did many other Canadian organizations. And face shields pose a safety risk for some employees, he added, as they fog up.

Keating said that Cargill has a morning call with all the leads of the plants, which number just under 40, where they go through the numbers of infected and health protocols. The company has reconfigured break rooms and break times, has installed physical barriers where workers can’t physically distance, is bussing in workers and has rules around carpooling. All workers have masks and some have face shields.

South of the border, JBS SA alone has spent $100 million on worker safety measures in its beef and poultry plants, Steve Kay of Cattle Buyer’s Weekly reports. Kay estimated that the packing industry as a whole has likely spent $300 to $400 million on approximately 70 beef plants in the U.S.

In all fairness, COVID-19 presents a “completely new paradigm for health and safety” in the plants, said Hughes. “The microwave keypad is suddenly a massive health and safety risk, whereas before it was just this innocuous thing.”

Hughes said they’re not trying to say that either company did nothing to protect workers.

“They’re working and we’ve got to give them credit for that. But we think it needs to move a lot quicker and we still have questions.”

Even if there are no new cases, Hughes would like to see an inquiry into what happened so that history doesn’t repeat in a few months.

“Everyone’s talking about COVID-19 coming back in the fall. It’s terrifying.”

This is the second in a series of articles. For more, see: 

About the author

Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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