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WorkSafeBC approved poultry plant's COVID-19 plan as outbreak began

FILE - A worker outside a poultry plant in the Lower Mainland. United Poultry and its sister plant Superior Poultry both had cases of COVID-19 in April 2020. (CityNews photo)
Summary

Workplace health-and-safety agency responded when poultry workers complained of working 'elbow to elbow'

Communication was lacking in the early weeks of the pandemic but improved, industry spokesperson says

WorkSafeBC can't disclose reasons for inspection, spokesperson says

COQUITLAM (NEWS 1130) – On April 23, 2020, the Fraser Health Authority forced a Coquitlam poultry plant to close, citing a COVID-19 outbreak among its workers and an inadequate coronavirus safety plan.

Two days earlier, WorkSafeBC – seemingly unaware the workforce had been exposed to the virus – had inspected Superior Poultry Processors and found no fault with its pandemic protocols.

The conflicting assessments are revealed in documents obtained by NEWS 1130 via freedom-of-information requests.

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The apparent lack of communication between the two agencies tasked with keeping workers safe was common in the early weeks of the pandemic but has since improved, according to a poultry industry spokesperson.

Workers ‘elbow to elbow’ in poultry plant

WorkSafe first inspected the plant for coronavirus protocols on April 8, after a worker called the agency to “report unsafe working conditions.”

“…Workers have reported concerns of unsafe conditions to [a] supervisor who states that the employer is an essential service and if the workers are not satisfied they can be ‘laid off,’” a WorkSafe officer wrote of the complaint.

Superior did not respond to an interview request when first contacted for this story in February.

During a nearly three-hour inspection conducted over the phone, Superior told WorkSafe it had implemented several new protocols, including increasing space between workers, providing them with gloves and masks, and designating full-time cleaning staff.

The next day, a Superior worker called WorkSafe, telling an officer “workers at the site are elbow to elbow in the main production area.”

A WorkSafe inspector called the plant for a second inspection two weeks later. Superior told the agency workers were “unable to maintain the 2 metre distance” but were required to wear masks and gloves, according to the inspection report.

WorkSafe issued no orders or suggestions for improvement when it filed the report the next day – roughly 24 hours before Fraser Health forced Superior to close.

No record WorkSafe knew of outbreak

The report does not mention that workers at the plant had already tested positive for COVID-19.

When first contacted for this story in February, spokesperson Alexandra Skinner said the report’s omission didn’t mean WorkSafe was unaware of the burgeoning outbreak.

“This simply comes down to what the officer felt was appropriate for context. We try to remain objective and evidence based,” she said in an email.

NEWS 1130 filed a second freedom-of-information request with WorkSafe, requesting records of when the agency first became aware of potential COVID-19 cases at Superior. The documents returned show no record of contact with Fraser Health or knowledge workers had tested positive.

When NEWS 1130 asked again whether and when WorkSafe became aware of the outbreak, Skinner said she could not disclose the rationale for its inspections.

“It may betray the privacy of the process of workers reporting their concerns to us,” she said in an email.

At least 56 COVID-19 cases linked to Superior

By the time of WorkSafe’s second inspection, Fraser Health had begun testing Superior employees after learning the facility shared some workers with United Poultry in Vancouver, where a COVID-19 was underway.

At least two Superior workers had tested positive when the health authority ordered the Superior plant to “immediately cease all operations within the establishment” on April 23.

A Fraser Health officer told Superior it was being shut down for three reasons: the outbreak, a COVID-19 mitigation plan lacking in detail, and “inadequate” employee screening and illness policies.

At the time, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she expected more Superior workers would soon test positive.

Four days later 236 employees and 73 close contacts had been tested and the tally of confirmed cases swelled to 25. Days later, it was 56.

“[It’s] scary,” one worker told the Tri-City News as she waited for her symptoms to start after testing positive.

In an emailed statement, Fraser Health spokesperson Dixon Tam said he couldn’t find information related to the Superior outbreak or any communication with WorkSafe at the time.

He said the health authority’s current policy is to notify employers and employees “when potential COVID-19 transmission in a workplace is identified.”

“When there is a COVID-19 cluster or outbreak identified at a workplace that requires an environmental health inspection by Fraser Health, we alert WorkSafeBC so we can work collaboratively,” Tam said.

Chilliwack workers complained before outbreak confirmed

On April 23, WorkSafe inspected another plant in the Fraser Health region, Chilliwack’s Fraser Valley Poultry. The inspector noted workers were “unable” to keep two metres away from one another, but the employer said employees have the “option” to wear masks, face shields, or both.

The plant had also installed some plastic shields in some work areas and required spacing in its lunch room, according to the inspector.

Five days after the WorkSafe inspection, Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry announced one of its workers had tested positive for the coronavirus. Two days after that, Fraser Health inspected the plant and ordered it to close.

“Your COVID-19 mitigation measures in place at the time of inspection were deemed inadequate to prevent and/or reduce the likelihood of transmission within this establishment,” the health authority told the company in an April 30 letter.

Inspectors observed employees working in close proximity throughout the facility, a lack of staff designated to enforce COVID-19 protocols, and a hand-washing sink inaccessible to workers because it was blocked by an ice bin.

Fraser Health also told FVSP that the “very high humidity” in its kill room was likely causing masks to break down and said workers should change masks regularly and work with more space between them.

In a May 3 letter to the plant, Fraser Health said it had linked seven COVID-19 cases to the plant, with more close contacts “at risk of developing the disease.” The plant was allowed to reopen the next day, with approximately two thirds of its regular workforce.

Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry did not respond to an interview request.

‘It’s like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it’

The meat industry, like many others, has had to adapt quickly to the pandemic, said Jean-Michel Laurin, president and CEO of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.

“It’s like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” he said. “So we’re learning about this constantly.”

In the early weeks of the pandemic, poultry processors weren’t sure which regulators were responsible for rules and guidance during the pandemic, Laurin said.

Accustomed to federal regulation, they turned to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), but they also believed the virus was a workplace-safety issue under WorkSafe’s purview, he said. Eventually, Laurin said, it became clear health-authority officials were the primary point of contact for pandemic issues.

Communication with and between regulators got “much better” over time, he said.

“Again, this is something we’ve learned along the way,” he said. “At the end of the day, we realized companies need to know who to answer to.”

CFIA inspectors, who work in slaughterhouses to ensure food safety, follow the guidelines of local, provincial, and federal health officials, as well as the protocols established at the workplaces they inspect, a spokesperson said in an email.

“When cases of COVID-19 occur in a food processing or meat slaughter establishment, the CFIA works with local public health to help determine the level of risk of exposure for CFIA employees,” the spokesperson said.

Meat plant workers reported lacking safety measures

The WorkSafe records obtained by NEWS 1130 also show complaints from meat-processing workers and their family members. Several complained of inadequate physical distancing, while others reported “no policies in place to protect workers.”

Citing privacy legislation, WorkSafe redacted identifying information about the complaints, including names, dates and workplaces.

“The plant was shut down due to a COVID outbreak in the plant. Staff were told not to come in. Some still did,” a WorkSafe employee wrote of one complaint.

One caller apparently mentioned the United outbreak and said “workers are being forced to keep working.” A redacted line of text makes it unclear whether the caller was referring to United workers.

Another complainant claimed an employer didn’t tell its workers when several of their colleagues had tested positive for the coronavirus.

WorkSafe’s data shows it has received more than 4,300 claims related to COVID-19 exposures, most of which have come from the health-and-social-services industry.

Of the 46 food and beverage manufacturing workers who filed exposure claims, 37 worked in poultry processing. British Columbians working in law enforcement, daycares and coffee shops all claimed fewer on-the-job virus exposures.