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Alberta safety inspection of Cargill slaughterhouse done via FaceTime, with no actual inspector on site

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Alberta Labour's occupational health and safety inspector didn't actually visit the Cargill Inc. meat-packing plant in High River when the ministry inspected its COVID-19 safety measures on April 15.

Instead, the Labour Ministry inspector watched via FaceTime as three employees conducted "a virtual plant inspection."

With the United Conservative Party government determined to keep the plant open, another five days would pass while COVID-19 spread within the facility, and in the community, before the company moved to shut down the slaughterhouse itself.

Mark Wells, a lawyer employed by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents workers at the plant where one of Alberta's worst outbreaks of COVID-19 has taken place, posted an inspection report from the ministry on Twitter Monday night.

Yesterday, UFCW 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes confirmed the union has knowledge the inspection was conducted via FaceTime, a product developed by Apple for use on smartphones.

The ministry contact report attached to Wells's tweet describes how the April 15 "virtual inspection" was done by the plant's technical safety monitor and two staff members, who the inspector took care to note were union members.

The inspection was in the form of a FaceTime video recorded by Cargill Ltd. -- the Canadian subsidiary of Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. "A copy of the employer's virtual inspection was provided to OHS officer on April 16," the document states.

The inspection covered several sections of the plant, the report said, but not the kill floor because cattle were not being slaughtered on the day of the inspection.

In the report, the ministry inspector noted the Cargill safety officer said that as of the next day, April 16, all employees would be required to wear "a minimum surgical mask." Accordingly, the report concluded that the employer had acted, "as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so" to ensure the health, safety and welfare of plant workers, and others in the vicinity.

Alberta Health Services first inspected the Cargill on April 7, when the first COVID-19 cases at the plant were confirmed, UFCW 401 president Tom Hesse said in a statement late yesterday. “UFCW Local 401 doesn’t know when exactly they came because the union wasn't included in that process," he said. "When UFCW asked for a written report from the AHS inspection, the union was told there was none, and that AHS Calgary Zone, relied on 'verbal reports' from its staff that the plant was safe."

On April 12, workers at the plant had sent High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass a letter urging the plant be closed for two weeks in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. "We the workers and our families are worried and scared for the possibility that we might bring the virus with us at home," the letter said.

The same day, which was Easter Sunday, Hesse wrote Cargill management warning "there is no reason to believe that hundreds of individuals in your working environment won’t soon be carrying the virus." He too urged the plant be closed for two weeks. The letter was cc'd to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Labour Minister Jason Copping. Hesse was ignored.

On April 16, the day Cargill promised to start having packinghouse employees wear masks, Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen took to Twitter to accuse Opposition leader Rachel Notley of "misinformation and fearmongering" for saying workers at the plant had been laid off or had their hours cut for complaining about unsafe working conditions. In a tweet that hasn't aged well, Dreeshen said the former NDP premier was "dishonest to hardworking Albertans and threatens Alberta food security."

But as far back as April Fools' Day, in response to a question in the legislature about COVID-19 at another meat-packing plant, Dreeshen said "food processing facilities have implemented additional sanitation procedures to ensure that the safety of their workers and their inspectors is paramount."

Meanwhile, according to a CBC report, the company continued to pressure employees who thought they had been in contact with COVID-19 to come back to work, even if they had tested positive for the virus.

Last Saturday, Dreeshen, Copping and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw held a telephone town hall with Cargill employees at which workers were again assured, in the agriculture minister's words, "their worksite is safe."

On Monday, after confirmation there had been 484 COVID-19 infections related to the outbreak at the High River plant, 360 of them among employees, the company announced it was temporarily closing the facility. One infected worker has died.

By contrast, when a single employee of a Vancouver poultry plant was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Sunday, B.C. officials tested 71 employees Monday, identified 27 cases, and immediately closed the facility.

Now, you may think doing "virtual inspections" is an exceptionally bad idea if the point is actually to prove working conditions are healthy and safe -- not merely to let a corporation tick off a box saying it has met its legal occupational health and safety expectations.

How would you feel, for example, if you learned Alberta Health Services was now conducting virtual food-safety inspections via FaceTime or Zoom?

That might seem to you almost as bad an idea as having a checkup by your physician done via a smartphone app that uses "artificial intelligence" to help with your diagnosis -- which, come to think of it, is something this government is also promoting for the front lines of Alberta's public health-care system.

Apparently, though, the idea is fine as far as the UCP is concerned. Yesterday, Copping's press secretary tweeted, "video inspections mitigate the risk of exposure of all parties during this pandemic.

"This format is NOT specific or unique to the Cargill facility," Adrienne South said. "It's fully interactive and the inspector can direct movement."

Compare this to how Premier Kenney reacted when Canada Food Inspection Agency inspectors wouldn't enter the Harmony Beef Co. Ltd. plant at Balzac, just north of Calgary, after an employee there was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Vowing "to see if we can instead substitute Alberta inspectors into that facility, or any other facilities," Kenney complained on March 27 that "we cannot have the CFIA effectively impairing our entire livestock industry by having people refusing to go on the job." In fact, the inspectors had been instructed by CFIA supervisors not to enter the plant.

South was right about one thing, though: the province has used the technique elsewhere. According to sources close to the industry, that was at the JBS S.A. meatpacking plant in Brooks, where there has also been an outbreak of COVID-19 among workers and in the community.

Somehow, though, the fact it's been done before doesn't seem like a good defence. South might have missed the point of the public's concern.

Maybe the UCP will now tell us they're permanently closing down public schools and replacing them with online classes unless you can afford private instruction for your kids.

Don't just shrug off such possibilities, as crazy as they sound. As it's already shown, the UCP government has a mania for austerity and "red tape" reduction, especially if they're convenient for corporations or allow the government to cut corners while claiming to fulfill its obligations.

Pushing the Babylon medical app may have been a leading indicator of this tendency, not a dumb idea that will soon be corrected.

Normalizing "virtual" safety inspections conducted by a company manager with a couple of employees in tow sounds like exactly the sort of policy the Grant Hunter's "Ministry of Red Tape Reduction" would come up with, and might just implement if we fail to pay close attention.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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