The recent meat recall at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta is not wanting in superlatives.
It is one of the most massive meat recalls in Canadian history involving one of the country's largest beef packing plants that processes more than 4,000 head of cattle a day. Meat tainted with E. coli sickened a four-year-old boy and numerous others, resulting in the facility being shut down for a month and thousands of workers laid off.
Management of the beleaguered plant, owned by Brian and Lee Nilsson — brothers with a family tradition of ranching — has since been taken over by JBS USA, a leading animal protein processor in the United States and Australia.
Media coverage of this incident has focused primarily on public food safety. Justifiably so, considering that the meat processed by XL Foods is shipped to more than a dozen countries. But little has been said or heard about the invisible, voiceless workers — many of whom are temporary and foreign — toiling behind the walls of the plant. What are the occupational health and safety risks they are exposed to when handling pathogen-tainted meat that sickened so many?
A summary of non-compliances compiled by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at XL Foods noted multiple deficiencies in sanitation and maintenance: grease build-up and blood clots on the evisceration table; broken eye/handwash tap; large amounts of fat and meat build-up throughout; water pooling on the floors; a foul odour from a drain near the rendering room; condensation on the kill floor and in the offal hallway dripping onto boxed products; antimicrobial dripping onto rusty pipe and products; improper airflow at the processing floor; and bung bags in contact with a sink.
"This is dirty, dangerous work even in the best of circumstances," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton. "It is clear to us that there are both food safety problems and work safety problems at the Brooks packing plant and in many cases, the two are related."
Bob Jackson, regional executive-vice president for British Columbia with Public Service Alliance of Canada in Vancouver, says work conditions in meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses are "almost indescribable" at times. "There has always been hazards involved in this line of work, just the environmental conditions that people are put into. You are dealing with heat, humidity, constant alerts around moving equipment and slippery floors," says Jackson, who was a former meat inspector.
Workers face a risk of direct exposure to pathogens by being in contact with contaminants that are aerosolized when handling carcasses stained with blood, feces and bodily fluids in a steamy environment with temperatures routinely reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100 per cent humidity, Jackson notes.
While workers are provided with personal protective equipment, they may not be utilized to the fullest extent, considering the discomfort of donning additional clothing, hard hats and goggles that can steam up under such conditions. "You can imagine what that might feel like in terms of real world protection," he adds, noting that it was quite routine to see workers not wearing the necessary protective gear.
"It is up to management in these facilities to ensure their employees are taking proper precautions and sometimes, the management is not totally on top of it," Jackson suggests.
One-third of the 2,200 employees at XL Foods comprise temporary foreign workers, although that number fluctuates. Finding workers has been a chronic problem in meatpacking facilities, particularly in isolated communities such as Brooks, a two-hour drive from Calgary.
"There are many days when Brooks simply did not have enough people on the line to maintain speed," McGowan notes. "And that has obvious implications for both food safety and workplace safety, because inexperienced workers tend to be more vulnerable to workplace accidents and they are also less likely to be familiar with food safety protocols."
He reports conversations with plant workers who say line speeds are too fast for them to keep up. "On average, they are dealing with about 260 carcasses every hour, which does not give them enough time to follow safety protocols, but also increase[s] the likelihood of injuries when it comes to the use of their knives and also puts what we would describe as undue stress on their bodies."
Through the years, technology and mechanization have shaped how work is being done in meatpacking facilities. When Jackson started working in the industry back in the '80s, he recalls handling up 40 to 50 carcasses every hour. While there is a lot more mechanization today to perform some of the functions, he says it is "an incredible speed requirement," citing poultry carcasses going by on an evisceration line at two or three birds a second.
"It becomes almost impossible to do a proper job, to do it safely, to make sure that your equipment is properly sanitized in between carcasses, that people are given opportunities to ensure their tools and equipment are in top shape," Jackson contends. Blunt knives, which require the use of greater force, also increases the likelihood of cuts should the knife slip. "If you are trying to incise lymph nodes with a knife for instance, you have to do it at a speed that will allow you to keep up," he adds. "Your brain is spinning at that speed trying to concentrate on doing any kind of a real function."
Line specialization also means that workers are performing the same movements hundreds of times for hours each day, putting them at an elevated risk of repetitive strain injuries, notes Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
While different estimates have been made on the speed of lines, which varies depending on the slaughterhouse, the most commonly-used estimates are those in larger facilities that process 400 head of cattle an hour. "Based on the estimates I have seen, the line speeds in North America are said to be double of what they are in Europe," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
"Line speeds are based on a very complex arrangement of factors," Jackson notes, citing considerations that include physical constraints of the plant, workers' profile and level of training, the type of livestock being processed and the condition of animals when they come into the facility.
Doug Powell, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine's department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, concurs that line speed is a factor in safety, "but not a concern if attention is being paid to worker and microbial safety."
Food safety management systems incorporate a series of hurdles in the processing system, which contributes to a cumulative decrease in the possibility and number of pathogens present in the food supply, notes information from the CFIA. Hot water and steam pasteurization, application of organic acids and evaluation of the safety and efficacy of antibacterial agents prior to application are among the measures used.
Should a line speed surpass a worker's capacity to effectively perform the requisite food safety functions, inspectors and veterinarians appointed by the agency have the authority to order an immediate cessation of production. "Federally-registered meatpacking and processing establishments must satisfy all requisite occupational health and safety requirements," says Ronald Davidson, government and media relations director with the Canadian Meat Council in Ottawa.
Line speed is intrinsically tied to the stunning of animals, which has a bearing on worker safety. Animals that are improperly stunned thrash about as they are being hoisted, presenting a significant risk to the sticker, who has to cut the throat of the beast weighing hundreds of pounds.
"There has been many incidents where animals from a wide variety of species are not stunned adequately," Jackson points out, adding that this was a frequent occurrence even before high line-speeds came into the picture. He describes scenarios in which animals that escape the stunning process end up on the kill floor alive and running around.
In the poultry business where stunning is largely mechanized through electrocution, "there are many incidents of animals not being stunned before going into the scalding process for instance, so there is the inhumane aspect as well as the safety aspect," Jackson notes.
However, that does not mean workers can let their guard down when handling a properly-stunned animal. Chris Fuller, general manager with Alleghany Meats in Monterey, Virginia cautions that even an immobile or unconscious animal is dangerous to approach as its nervous system is still reacting. "There is a lot of thrashing and a lot of movement still," Fuller describes. "You have to be very diligent in the way you approach them and making sure that you are keeping yourself safe when you do so."
Workers should watch out for signs of improper stunning by looking at the side of the animal to see if there is ribneck breathing. Blinking of the eyes is another indicator. In such cases, the animal needs to be restunned before it is killed. "That is proper procedure through the entire industry."
There is also the mental health aspect of working in places where animals hang upside down all day long. "These environments are incredibly difficult to work in," Jackson suggests.
But little research has been done in this area to offer insight on the mental repercussions on those who toil in these environments. "We really don't have systematic information about it," says Dr. Fitzgerald, who co-authored a study in 2009, examining the relationship between slaughterhouse employment levels and crime rates. Results were compared with other manufacturing industries with similar labour force composition, injury and illness rates, but engage in inanimate materials of production.
The study, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates, hypothesizes that the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for workers over and above other characteristics of the work. It examines slaughterhouse facilities in 581 counties. The data, accessed through the United States Census Bureau's County Business Patterns, covers the period from 1994 to 2002.
Results indicate that the slaughterhouse employment variable has a significant positive effect on arrests for rape and other sex offences — effects not found in the comparison industries. An average-sized slaughterhouse, which employs 175 people, would be expected to increase the number of arrests by 2.24 and the report rate by 4.69. The expected arrest and report value in counties with 7,500 slaughterhouse employees are more than double the values where there are no slaughterhouse workers.
The study argues the results lend support to the argument that the industrial slaughterhouse is different in its effects from other industrial facilities. "Many of these offences are perpetrated against those with less power and we interpret this as evidence that the work done within slaughterhouses might spill over to violence against other less powerful groups, such as women and children."
An earlier study, which looks at 1,404 non-metropolitan counties in the United States from 1990 to 2000, arrived at similar conclusions. Counties with growth in meatpacking employment experienced faster growth in violent crime rates over the decade relative to counties without packing plants.
The psychological trauma of slaughterhouse work can be inflicted on workers in several ways: perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), empathy suppression and violating the natural preference against killing, notes a study published in 2008 by Jennifer Dillard of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers in the United States from workplace hazards, "the lack of psychological regulation is due to the agency's prioritizing of more traditional, physical health issues and the 'perceived exigency' of these problems," she contends.
Perpetration-induced traumatic stress is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by being an active participant in causing trauma. Occupations that can put workers at risk of PITS include soldiers, executioners and police officers, where it is socially acceptable or even expected of them to cause trauma, including death. Symptoms of PITS include substance abuse, depression, increased paranoia and a sense of disintegration. Dillard notes in her study that substance abuse, which is prevalent among slaughterhouse workers, is evidence of the adverse psychological impact associated with the nature of their work.
The intensive, production-focused nature of factory farming and meatpacking facilities also requires workers in such workplaces to suppress their spontaneous empathy for animals. "By habitually violating one's natural preference against killing, the worker very likely is adversely psychologically impacted," Dillard concludes.
NOW AND THEN
As of October 29, XL Foods Inc. resumed operations under enhanced CFIA oversight and increased testing protocols. A statement from the CFIA notes that agency inspectors closely monitored plant operations, including the uploading and screening of animals, pre-operation inspections, slaughter and the cutting and processing of carcasses. It has also requested the company submit corrective action plans outlining how they will address these issues in the longer term and mitigate future risks.
But the situation was rather different back in early September during the onset of the investigation when the CFIA seemed to have difficulty obtaining information from the plant. That prompted federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz's comments that agency inspectors could have been "more hard-nosed" when dealing with the plant responsible for the country's largest beef recall.
Information from the CFIA indicates that on September 6, the agency requested from XL Foods distribution information and testing results for all products produced on the days when the affected products were made. This was followed by a formal letter on September 7 stating that the company must respond by the following day. The information was provided in a series of submissions over two days on September 10.
"If we did not get what we needed or had requested, we would stop the production line," Jackson says of his time when meat inspectors were given clear direction on where their authorities lie. "What seems to have happened now is inspectors are not being given that direction to the point that they will feel uncomfortable, perhaps stopping the line or taking something out of production," he suggests.
McGowan observes that through the years, the meatpacking industry has been moving towards a policy of self-regulation. The shift started more than a decade ago when the CFIA, created in 1997, came under the responsibility of the agriculture ministry. While federal meat inspections are still being conducted in packing plants, he notes that there is increasing reliance on written reports furnished by quality control officers employed by the plant.
"It is very clear that cuts and deregulation have compromised both worker safety and food safety," McGowan says, stressing the need for more rigorous enforcement. "When it comes to safety, it means more inspectors, more boots on the ground, a greater willingness to shut down plants that are not in compliance. And it also means tougher prosecution."
In a statement issued in October of 2012, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers union called for a public inquiry into the tainted meat debacle to address issues, such as the level of authority and mandate of CFIA employees, line speeds and if there is adequate training and whistleblower protection for workers.
"The results of Canada's system of self-regulation have already been criticized by American inspectors," the statement notes. "Over the last decade, several United States Department of Agriculture inspections have flagged problems with beef processing plants in Alberta."
As a sign of things to come, the federal government will stop inspecting provincially-licensed abattoirs in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba by 2014. Effect from December 31, 2013, British Columbia will take over from the CFIA the responsibility of meat inspection for provincially-licensed Class A and B slaughter facilities. The inspection of federally-licensed abattoirs and other issues of federal jurisdiction will remain under the CFIA.
The British Columbia ministries of Agriculture and Health held extensive consultations with the province's livestock and slaughter industries about the new meat inspection system for provincially licensed abattoirs. Inputs from these consultations, collated in the July of 2012 report, Summary of Industry Consultations of the BC Abattoir Inspection System Review, "reflects the observation that the B.C government will face challenges in implementing a meat inspection system that responds to the needs of all parties. This is especially true in an industry as diverse as B.C.'s meat processing industry," the report states.
Jackson concurs that the agriculture ministry's mandate to act in the interest of the agricultural sector can restrict its regulatory role of ensuring that food products produced by the very industry it is tasked to promote meets federal health standards. "It does raise the spectre of the potential for conflict," he suggests. "I don't recall there being such large incidents of E. coli, Listeriosis and these massive numbers of recalls on an annual basis for a whole wide variety of things."
E. coli, a bacteria that exists naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals, can be transferred to the outer surface of meat during butchering. Some of the most common ways to be infected with E. coli are improper handling of raw ground meat, consumption of undercooked ground meat and contact with feces of cattle. "The bacteria that contaminates the meat can also infect individual workers who come into contact with it," Dr. Fitzgerald cautions.
ON THE GROUND
Fuller understands the challenges of ensuring smooth operation in a meatpacking plant and keeping workers safe at the same time. But the newly-constructed facility where he works makes his job a tad easier. "It is a very new plant. Everything from the handling facility down to the cutting and wrapping have kind of been thought through as best as possible."
He reveals that when the plant had just finished construction in February, they did not realize it would be handling bisons. "So when we got a customer who is talking about a consistent volume of bison coming through here, we invest in upgrading our handling facility to handle these bisons, which are different than cattle. They have a lot more energy."
The type of livestock being handled has an influence on the design of a facility. "The way our facility is set up, we have a way to move the animals without actually getting into the pen with them and I think that is really important," Fuller says. "Humane animal handing has a lot to do with stress so always keep them calm, not getting the animals riled up. That is very helpful in keeping everybody safe." Having more than one worker in a handling facility also allows them to watch each other's backs, he adds.
Keeping the environment sanitary is also key, especially on the kill floor where slips and trips are a real hazard. That means exercising diligence in spraying a floor down if blood is present, keeping the floor free from debris and liquids that could cause other hazards and removing remnants of fat or meat particles from the evisceration process. "You try to avoid having the opportunity to have a lot of bacteria build up in various areas where it will affect the workers or food safety," Fuller cautions. Frequent handwashing and keeping knives clean with sterilizer boxes where knives can be dipped are among the preventive measures, he adds.
Verbal communication is also important in alerting workers to hazards. Physical dangers abound in an environment where carcasses are constantly being moved across rail lines. "When you have a 600-pound carcass coming down the line, you got to be careful," Powell cautions.
Workers also need to be adequately trained to safely do their jobs, considering that meatpacking plants often employ a high proportion of migrant workers. "The industry has become quite adept at recruiting the most marginalized population that are quite vulnerable," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests.
McGowan agrees. "A lot of these temporary farm workers are very reluctant to speak out for themselves when it comes to any issue, especially safety issues. They want to stay in Canada and so they keep quiet, keep their heads down and continue working."
In a meatpacking facility in Colorado where Fuller used to work, he recalls working alongside employees from Mexico, some of whom spoke little English. To address the language barrier, he had a bilingual worker translate the standard operational procedure, which was written in English, into Spanish for reading by the Mexican workers as part of their training. A supervisor was then assigned to provide hands-on training. He also made sure that a worker who speaks only Spanish would not be placed to work alongside purely English speakers. "I have somebody who spoke Spanish around so they could communicate effectively with the whole group," he adds.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The CFIA says the tainted meat incident at XL Foods cannot be attributed to a specific problem. However, there are a number of factors that, when considered collectively, may have contributed to the incident. These preliminary findings are already being considered by both the CFIA and the meat industry. The review has resulted in some modifications to previous practices, the Canadian Meat Council reports.
"A good place to start is slowing down line speeds," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests. "It has been ratcheted up to increase profits, but it really is causing more problems for workers and for meat safety." She suggests that the industry's high turnover rate has led to on-the-job training falling by the wayside.
For Powell, enforcement certainly has a part to play, but so does company culture. "What they need is a culture that values food safety and worker safety as much as it values profit."
Jackson is of the mind that an emphasis on controlling the environment as much as possible is needed. Sufficient resources should be made available to ensure that workers have proper breaks away from the lines and their mental capabilities are looked after. "I don't know if there have been studies done on the long-term effects of being exposed to these environments over a person's career. I'm sure it can't be healthy."
For that to take place, a fundamental change to the legal and regulatory frameworks needs to be effected. Although Dillard's study is framed within an American context, her recommendations on ways to improve the mental health of meatpacking plant workers nevertheless have resonance for Canada, which shipped $24 billion worth of meat products worldwide in 2010.
She recommends that a regulatory framework for psychological safety in slaughterhouses be developed under the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "Just as OSHA inspectors can pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to an employee's physical safety, OSHA inspectors could use their inspections to pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to psychological safety," Dillard writes.
Workers' compensation can also serve as a legal scheme to redress the psychological harm associated with slaughterhouse work. Dillard argues that such a system would encourage employers to maintain psychologically healthy work environments and provide monetary relief to employees who suffer from ongoing, pervasive psychological trauma due to the violence of their workplace. "A typical slaughterhouse should be considered an ultrahazardous activity for psychological well-being, and employers should be liable for psychological damage caused by the work," Dillard contends.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, caused a public furor with its descriptions of morbid conditions in meatpacking houses in the Chicago stockyards during the early 20th century. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was created in the same year the novel was published.
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," wrote Sinclair in reference to the unintended consequences of sparking an outcry against the sector. Hopefully, the XL Foods incident — which has hit many Canadians in the stomach — will also accidentally touch our hearts.
BEHIND THE WALLS
Meatpacking facilities are not accessible to members of the public, but it does not take much imagination to figure out how the ubiquitous use of sharp knives, handling animals and high line speeds converge to create an environment conducive for accidents and increased repetitive movements. A look at injury statistics can put that in perspective.
In 2010, Alberta's meat, hides and pelt products sub-sector had a disabling injury claim rate of 12.42 per 100 person-years worked — the highest of any manufacturing, processing and packaging sub-sectors, notes information from Occupational Injuries and Diseases in Alberta.
Hands and fingers are the most commonly injured body parts (27 per cent), followed by the back (13 per cent) and shoulders (11 per cent), notes information from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in Australia.
OHS, January/February 2013 issue
Byline: Jean Lian, Editor of OHS Canada
Restructuring and cuts at railway a warning to Canadians about risk of Bain-style management
Edmonton – Labour advocates are taking aim at vulture capitalism in the wake of massive job cuts at Canada’s second-largest railway.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, management at Canadian Pacific announced that 4,500 jobs — more than a quarter of the workforce —will be laid off over the next four years, with 1,700 jobs to be cut before the end of 2012.
“These are quick-buck artists trying to squeeze obscene profits by gutting companies so they look profitable in the short term,” Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said. “Their interests are different than the interests of Canadians. Strategic companies that are crucial to this country should not be pecked to pieces by vulture capitalists.”
A US-based hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, took over Canadian Pacific earlier this year. Despite the fact that CP’s operational costs were in-line with the terrain and with industry standards, the hedge fund’s backers installed a new CEO, Hunter Harrison. Harrison joined the company in June with a plan to drastically cut costs in order to increase payments to their shareholders.
“This is a railway that operates in steep and varied terrain. I have concerns about the safety cutting costs on a railway that transports dangerous goods through the pristine Canadian Rockies,” McGowan said, adding that the safe and efficient operation of Canada’s national railways is crucial to several industries.
At present, the company has not released details of how the cuts will take place, or which workers will be affected. In Calgary, there are more than 500 workers employed by Canadian Pacific Rail, in Lethbridge, there are more than 160.
“Western Canadian farmers rely on having some competition between CN and CP,” McGowan said. “A shell of a company that has been gutted for the benefit of Wall Street is not in our interest.”
“These cuts will have an effect on many communities throughout Alberta and across Canada,” McGowan said. “These are good-paying, family-sustaining jobs, and the loss of these jobs will be felt across whole communities.”
Saskatchewan prosecutes four times as many cases
The province's workplace safety prosecution record is drawing fire, as new figures show signifi cantly fewer cases were taken to court last year than in Saskatchewan, with a workforce one-quarter the size of Alberta's.
Alberta wrapped up prosecutions on 11 workplace safety cases in 2010. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, has completed 47 cases since its fiscal year began nine months ago.
Connie Field, whose 28-year-old son Jake was electrocuted at a southern Alberta job site in 2006, said the gap between the two provinces is unacceptable.
"Justice is not being done," said Field, who remains frustrated that occupational charges weren't laid in her son's death despite a government probe pointing to safety problems.
"The only way they're going to change is to hit them hard, which is the pocketbook."
Throughout the past decade, Alberta consistently had one of the highest worker fatality rates in the country, spiking at 166 deaths three years ago. Yet a Herald investigation last year showed prosecutions of workplace safety violations were rare.
Alberta Justice declined to comment Thursday on the province's prosecution rate, deferring questions to Alberta Employment.
Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said his workplace investigators forward cases to Crown lawyers for review but, as a politician, he can't press for charges, even when safety infractions are found.
Both Alberta and Saskatchewan rely on similar legal tests when determining whether to issue occupational safety charges, asking: Is the case in the public interest and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?
Asked whether he's worried about the perception that Alberta is reluctant to take employers who break safety laws to court, Lukaszuk said he's not fixated on the prosecution rate.
"Justice is not a numbers game," the employment minister said. "At the end of the day, I'm not in the business of generating numbers of prosecutions. I'm not in the business of convictions.
"I'm in the business of making
sure that every Albertan comes home safe at the end of the shift."
Alberta Employment statistics released Thursday show worker deaths last year were ahead of the previous year's pace. With two months left to count, 111 employees died in 2010, compared with 85 during the same stretch in 2009.
The province recently revamped its workplace safety enforcement system, hiring additional inspectors, posting company safety records online, and targeting high-risk industries for safety blitzes.
Field, however, contends these measures are "window dressing." If the province was serious about cracking down on safety breaches,
she believes more employers would face court action.
NDP MLA Rachel Notley and union leader Gil McGowan agree.
"It's clear that Alberta is still lagging behind other provinces in terms of prosecutions for workplace health and safety violations," said McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"The minister talks a tough game and he likes to say his government is willing to put its money where its mouth is, but these numbers suggest to me that's not happening."
Workplace safety prosecutions have ramped up in Saskatchewan since the province introduced a zero-tolerance policy for violations involving inadequate fall protection at construction sites.
Glennis Bihun, executive director of Saskatchewan's occupational health and safety division, said roughly three-quarters of the 60 prosecutions launched in 2010-11 stem from its zero-tolerance approach.
"In those occasions where the risk to life is extremely high or in those infrequent occasions where there isn't a desire for compliance, there needs to be a penalty or a consequence," Bihun said.
In Alberta, occupational safety charges are rarely laid unless a worker is seriously injured or killed. The province's Employment Department notes Saskatchewan has a significantly higher worker injury frequency than Alberta. However, several safety experts contend comparing injury rates is difficult because tracking systems often vary widely from province to province.
Last month, Alberta's employment minister expressed disgust at the results of an inspection blitz of Alberta construction sites.
For six weeks in October and November, provincial workplace officers visited 73 commercial construction sites involving 146 employers in Calgary, Edmonton and other parts of Alberta.
In all, 214 safety violations were discovered. Top hazards involved working at heights without adequate fall protection and failing to properly safeguard against threats, such as openings in floors.
Notley of the NDP argues Alberta should follow Saskatchewan's model and target violations before employees are maimed. "What Alberta has to do is . . . prosecute any violation which undermines the culture of safety.
"Those seemingly less significant violations are as integral to the accidents that ultimately happen. All violations need to be taken seriously," said Notley.
Calgary Herald, Wednesday, Dec 5, 2012
Byline: Renata D'aliesio
CALGARY — A Redford government plan to target employers who repeatedly defy the province's safety laws with new penalties of up to $10,000 is being opposed by an industry group representing 2,000 construction firms.
The Alberta Construction Association says the government's new laws to implement administrative penalties next year are too vague, complicated and there's no proof that they'll be effective in making work sites safer.
"There's a presumption that employers are the bad guys, and we'll just ramp up the fines and we'll fix those bad guys," Ken Gibson, executive director of the association, said Wednesday.
"It's not evidence-based. There's no suggestion we can see that it actually is going to work."
Gibson said the association is in favour of a separate government plan that will allow provincial health and safety officers to hand out on-the-spot tickets to everyone on a job site, including owners and workers. The ticket system will help discourage more straightforward safety infractions on job sites, such as an employee who refuses to wear a helmet, he said.
Despite the concerns, the Redford government is pushing forward in the legislature with the two sets of new workplace penalties.
Administrative penalties — spelled out in Bill 6, the Protections and Compliance Statutes Amendment Act — will apply mostly to employers who break the law, and will allow for penalties of up to $10,000.
"There've been discussions with various employers' groups on this," Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said Wednesday, adding it's "normal" to have some opposition to new penalties.
The government's second move on workplace safety fines will be through a ticketing system, to be brought into force through regulations next year. It will allow for both workers and owners to be ticketed to the tune of hundreds of dollars, he explained.
"They're basically something that will sting a little if it goes to a worker, but it's not devastating," Hancock said.
But the ticketing plan is being panned by groups representing workers, who call it a "blame-the-victim" approach.
"At the end of the day, workplace safety is primarily the responsibility of employers and government, as regulator," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
McGowan noted that, in court, companies can be hit with a fine as high as $500,000 for a first offence. He's concerned the administrative penalties, which top out at $10,000, will replace full legal prosecutions against companies that break the law.
Not all businesses are opposed to the new administrative penalties.
"Right now there are employers in the province of Alberta who are not taking safety seriously," said Dave Fennell, senior safety adviser for Imperial Oil Resources, noting there was one week last month when five Alberta workers died on separate job sites.
"Just like any other law in the province, you need to be held accountable," Fennell said. "If the administrative fines are a way of making these employers accountable, then we are supportive of that."
The Wildrose party wants the proceeds of such workplace fines to be put into a dedicated safety fund, instead of flowing into general government revenues.
The NDP and Alberta Liberals say although they generally support the government's push for tougher penalties, one issue that remains outstanding is the lack of coverage for paid farm workers under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers' Compensation Act.
Under questioning from the opposition, the Tory government said Wednesday it's still working on a response to a report completed last February from the Farm Safety Advisory council, a government-appointed group that's made recommendations on improving the industry's safety record.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Nov 1 2012
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
It's been a sad week for workplace accidents in Alberta.
Five workers have died in as many days, in unrelated accidents.
The first accident happened Monday and involved a man who was on a scaffold, which rolled into a hole on a work site near Wainwright.
There were three deaths on Wednesday and a fifth on Friday, one involving a 19-year-old man who was killed after a ramp fell on him at a site near Conklin.
According to Gil McGowan, the President of the Federation of Labour, the government talks a good game in workplace safety but doesn't put their money where their mouth is.
"For years Alberta has had the second-highest rate of workplace fatalities in the country and we do have a very fast-paced labour market and economy," he said. "But even given that history, five deaths in one week is virtually unprecedented and for us in the labour movement, it really raises a red flag."
McGowan adds Alberta still has fewer workplace health and safety inspectors than virtually any other province per worker and is pushing for more since we have more workers in dangerous occupations than other provinces.
"We also have a government that is very, very reluctant to prosecute employers who break the rules and put their workers at risk," he said. "A lot of employers unfortunately think that there aren't that serious consequences for breaking the law when it comes to workplace safety and that needs to change."
No work will be completed on the sites as the deaths of the five workers are being investigated.
660 News, Sat Oct 20 2012
Byline: Megan Robinson and Chris Bowen
EDMONTON - Five people are dead in as many days after a spate of workplace accidents around the province this week.
Occupational Health and Safety spokesman Brookes Merritt said the incidents are not related but appear to be "a tragic coincidence."
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the number of workplace deaths is deeply troubling.
"Five fatalities in a week, even in a face-paced economy like this, is almost unprecedented, and certainly unacceptable," he said. "It demonstrates there is still a lot of work to be done."
Merritt said the first fatality happened Monday and involved a 56-year-old man who was on a scaffold that rolled into a 1.2-metre hole on a work site near Wainwright. Merritt said the worker was ejected from the scaffold, hit his head during the fall and was taken to hospital by air ambulance. The man died on Thursday morning.
On Wednesday afternoon, a man fuelling a forklift at Mo Tires in Lethbridge was pinned between the vehicle and a shed. He was pronounced dead in hospital.
A third worker died about 10 a.m. Thursday after falling inside a chimney stack at the Battle River power plant southeast of Edmonton. He died at the scene.
Later that day, around 1:30 p.m., a 19-year-old man died after a ramp fell on him at the Blackgold oilfield site near Conklin.
A fifth worker was killed at about 4:45 a.m. Friday at a work site 25 kilometres south of Grande Prairie. In that case, a 29-year-old man died after being crushed between a piece of heavy machinery and a tank.
"Any time we see a fatality at the workplace it's tragic," Merritt said. "Investigating this number of fatalities in such a short period of time is equally tragic, if not more so."
Merritt said investigators are also looking into a case where three workers were injured at a site northwest of Edson on Thursday morning. The three were hit by a disconnected snubbing hose and were taken to hospital, one by air ambulance, with undisclosed injuries.
Stop-work orders have been issued at all of the sites, and investigators are looking into what happened in each case.
"Our Occupational Health and Safety investigators are determined to investigate each incident rigorously and ensure that the results of this investigations help us learn how to prevent similar incidents in the future," Merritt said.
McGowan said the deaths should be a "red waving flag" for government and industry, showing that the issue of workplace injury and death is still not being properly addressed.
He said the deaths underline a need to increase the number of workplace safety inspectors in the province, which he said still lags behind other provinces.
With about 20 per cent of the province's population working in high-risk industries such as construction and the oilfield — more than double the percentage in most other provinces — McGowan said Alberta should also have a greater than average number of inspectors.
"We hear a lot of rhetoric from the government and employers, but neither group seems to be putting its money where its mouth is," he said. "The death toll continues to mount."
Human Services Minister Dave Hancock was not available for comment on Friday.
There have been 103 work-related fatalities in Alberta this year; 37 workplace fatalities, 28 motor vehicle accidents, and 38 from occupational diseases. There were 43 deaths from workplace fatalities and 28 from motor vehicle accidents in 2011.
Merritt said there are currently 122 OHS investigators in the province, and there will be 132 by the beginning of 2013, an increase of 30 officers from 2009.
"The department is continuously looking at how best to use its resources to achieve its ultimate goal — to have no workplace injuries or fatalities in the province," he said.
Edmonton and District Labour Council president Brian Henderson called the week's deaths "horrible."
"When we have this many fatalities in one week, it just further elaborates how much workplace safety needs to be given priority with this government," he said.
Henderson said in addition to more investigators he wants to see stiffer penalties for companies found guilty of workplace health and safety violations.
"It's not just finding an employer guilty and giving them a fine ...," he said. "With five (deaths) alone this week, what is really being done out there?"
Jeff Wilson, Human Services critic for the Wildrose Party, said he, too, thinks government should do more to support workplace safety, including by further increasing investigators and identifying high-risk employers.
"The strength of our economy rests on workers being safe and secure in our workforce, and we have to do what we can to make sure they get home safe every night," he said.
The Edmonton Journal, Friday Oct 19 2012
Byline: Jana E. Prudent
Food inspectors say a management takeover at the plant at the centre of Canada's largest beef recall will not impact their decision about if and when the facility can reopen.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said the fact management of the shuttered XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., will be handed over to a subsidiary of processing company JBS USA will not affect its review of the facility's procedures and products.
Wednesday's deal also gives JBS the option to buy the Brooks plant as well as other XL facilities and operations.
"The CFIA's decisions have been, and continue to be, based on scientific evidence and a precautionary approach to protect consumers," said the agency.
The meat-processing plant currently at the centre of Canada's largest beef recall, which includes about 2,000 products, had its licence suspended Sept. 27 following concerns about E. coli contamination.
The CFIA last week began an inspection of the plant after XL said it had made the required changes to get its licence back.
On the weekend, the company temporarily laid off 2,000 workers, then recalled 800 of them Tuesday so inspectors could continue their assessment. The employees were back out of work Wednesday.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford Thursday said reopening the plant continues to be a priority for the province, as does the promotion of Alberta beef as a safe and healthy product.
"We've been working very hard to get that plant open as soon as possible so that it doesn't adversely impact either beef producers or employees," she said.
Provincial Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson said he's taking the transfer of management to JBS as "a good sign that XL is serious about the continued operation of the plant," adding JBS is highly respected in the industry.
Olson, who is in continued talks with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, wouldn't comment on whether the JBS deal suggests previous management problems at the Brooks facility.
"We are not looking to point the finger at anybody who's at fault here. We're not looking for a public flogging, we just want the plant open, producing safe food," he said.
Meanwhile, Doug O'Halloran, president of the union representing XL workers, said he and Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, sent Redford a letter asking her to reconsider a public inquiry into the situation surrounding XL.
He also wants food-safety inspections to be moved under the federal government's health division as opposed to the agriculture division.
SunNews, Thurs Oct 18 2012
Byline: Jenna McMurray
CALGARY — As inspectors descended on the shuttered meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., Tuesday, the company behind the country's largest beef recall issued its first comments in days.
"We have worked diligently to address all corrective actions and want to thank our employees who have worked tirelessly to prepare us for this inspection," said XL Foods co-CEO Brian Nilsson in a statement Tuesday.
"We will continue to work co-operatively with the (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) as they conduct due diligence and verification of our intensified and enhanced food safety systems."
The CFIA began an inspection of the XL plant Tuesday after the company issued a recall on meat products -- now up to 1,800 different items -- due to E. coli contamination concerns.
The CFIA suspended the plant's licence and inspectors slapped XL with demands, many of them sanitation-related.
Eleven cases of E. coli -- one in B.C., seven in Alberta, two in Quebec and one in Newfoundland and Labrador -- have been linked to XL, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The news release said members of the XL community "deeply regret the illnesses caused by the consumption of beef products. Our thoughts are with the affected people at this time."
Guy Gravelle with the CFIA said more information on Tuesday's assessment at the plant would likely be made public Wednesday.
"We're still waiting to hear back from the people we had on the grounds," he said.
The leader of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents staffers at the plant, said there is still a desperate need for "food safety culture" at the facility.
Doug O'Halloran said for years the union has voiced concerns about training for temporary foreign workers, line speed and the need for whistle-blower protection. "We've dealt with other CEOs in the meat packing industry, but we've never come across anyone who wouldn't at least meet with us to talk about food safety," he said.
O'Halloran and Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan will hold a news conference in Brooks Wednesday.
Meanwhile, XL's handling of public relations -- communicating with media only through occasional statements -- was criticized by Alberta Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith during a luncheon in downtown Calgary.
"I wish the company, XL Foods, had taken a page from Maple Leaf (Foods) when they had their tragedy in 2008," she said, referring to the listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people.
"The CEO (Michael McCain) was very up front about it, gave press conferences, kept the public informed," she said.
Smith called for a full review once the plant is reopened to understand what broke down in the regulatory and communication processes.
Toronto Sun, Tuesday, Oct 09, 2012
Byline: Jenna McMurray, QMI Agency
With files from Michael Wood
Alberta's booming economy, huge influx of workers and lack of safety training on some job sites are causing more workplace accidents among young employees, and too often costing them their lives, say labour advocates.
The Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada states young workers are the most accident-prone in the country, with more than 50,700 workers under the age of 24 losing time from work after being injured in 2006.
Young people, who make up 17 per cent of Alberta's workforce, accounted for almost one-quarter of disabled injury claims in 2006, and those under 25 are 33 per cent more likely to be injured on the job than older workers.
The most recent stats show 51 workplace deaths among young workers across the country.
Most recently, on June 7, Rona employee Mitchell Tanner, 16, was killed after a forklift he was riding on flipped over and crushed him at a location near Edmonton.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said that incident was unfortunately not isolated, as young people are more accident-prone on the job because of their inexperience and a lack of health and safety training provided to them.
"It's not a surprise, but the statistics underline the need for an aggressive commitment to health and safety training for young workers because they are the ones most likely to be injured," he said, adding the lack of training is significant in Alberta as it experiences an "unprecedented" influx of people under the age of 25.
Holly Heffernan, interim executive secretary for the Calgary and District Labour Council agreed the economic boom is partially to blame.
"They are coming on to the workforce and getting no orientation - they just give them a hammer and let them go," she said.
The Meridian Booster, Page A10, Fri July 18 2008
Byline: Katie Schneider