More needs to be done to guarantee safety in workplaces, says AFL
EDMONTON - The leaders of unions affiliated with the Alberta Federation of Labour are urging the Kenney government to delay the staged re-opening of the Alberta economy by at least one month.
At a meeting of the Executive Council of the Alberta Federation of Labour today, public and private-sector union presidents voted to send a letter to Premier Jason Kenney and Labour Minister Jason Copping saying that more needs to be done to guarantee the safety of workers and patrons in Alberta workplaces.
They gave the following reasons for their position:
- Alberta has not been uniformly successful in flattening the curve of infection in all regions of the province. Calgary and Brooks continue to see significant workplace outbreaks that are leading to community spread. The most high-profile outbreaks have been at meat-packing plants (Cargill in High River and JBS in Brooks); but there have also been an alarming number of outbreaks in warehouses, grocery stores, long-term care facilities and other workplaces. At the very least, the government should consider putting these two regions on a different timetable for re-opening than the rest of the province.
- The government has so far failed to recognize that the voluntary approach to compliance with public health orders, which works reasonably well in the public, does not work nearly as well in the workplace. Workers don’t have the same freedom to follow directives on things like physical distancing and hand washing in the workplace as they do when they’re at home or in the community. At the same time, employers have competing interests (costs, profits etc.) that might discourage them from closely following directives from public health officials. The need for a more proscriptive approach in workplaces needs to be recognized before the next phase of re-opening can safely be allowed to proceed.
- The guidance on re-opening provided by the government to employers is filled with “mays” and “shoulds,” but has very few “musts”. For example, the documents tell employers that they “should” make sure their employees are practicing physical distancing and good hand hygiene; that they should maintain lists of staff and customers (for contact tracing); and that they should clean and disinfect all high-touch surfaces on a regular basis. But there are literally no actions that employers “must” take. Most people would think it absurd if our laws against speeding or drunk-driving were just suggestions – but that’s the approach being taken with employer compliance with public health directives. That needs to change. The economy cannot be safely re-opened until the government transforms more of its “mays” and “shoulds” in guidance documents for employers to “musts.”
- Also, the guidance documents focus on customer safety but often say little about worker safety. For example, the document for restaurants goes into detail about what should be done in dining areas, but literally says nothing about kitchens, where staff are most likely to be working in close quarters. With that in mind, the guidance documents must be amended to focus at least as much attention on safety for workers as they do on safety for customers and patrons.
- In addition to providing guidance for employers, the government must also prepare and release guidance documents for workers. These documents need to highlight the rights that all Alberta workers have under the law when it comes to health and safety in the workplace. These rights include the right to know (about hazards in their workplace); the right to participate (in decisions about how to mitigate those hazards); and the right to refuse (work that might endanger their lives or their health).
- One glaring omission in the guidance documents for employers is that they don’t mention that, under the law, employers are required to prepare hazard assessments and plans. In the context of the pandemic, these assessments and plans are particularly important. They would map out, in detail, the COVID-19 threats in each particular workplace, along with workplace-specific plans for mitigating those threats. Hazard assessments and plans are supposed to be created in cooperation with employees and shared with employees. The very process of creating these plans would help ensure the safety of both workers and customers. We can’t understand why this fact wasn’t recognized by government. It’s an omission that needs to be rectified.
- Another glaring omission has to do with personal protective equipment (PPE). The government’s guidance documents say that, in many cases, employers will have to provide masks and respirators to employees in order to guarantee the safe operation of their facilities. But they leave it entirely up to employers to determine if and when PPE should be used (and what type). They also leave it up to employers to source PPE themselves – even though it’s clear that many employers have never done that before; that, unlike government, most don’t have stockpiles to draw from: and that global shortages are making it difficult, and some cases impossible, for employers to find them. The government needs to be more explicit and proscriptive about when and what kind of PPE must be used. And they need to help employers source this equipment.
- Over the past two months, Alberta has experienced dozens of workplace COVID-19 outbreaks, starting with long-term care facilities, continuing with meat-packing plants and work-camps and now spreading to grocery stories and a wide variety of other workplaces. In no cases, did the government move quickly to close worksites or compel employers to action. Before re-opening businesses that have been closed, we need a more aggressive workplace outbreak protocol that provides for closures, testing of all employees in affected workplaces and penalties for employers who drag their feet or ignore public health directives.
- Given that the provincial government announced with great fanfare more than a month ago that they were imposing a one-site policy for long-term care facilities to help stop the spread of the coronavirus to vulnerable residents, it will probably come as a surprise to most Albertans that this policy has still not been implemented. We should not re-open the economy until this changes and the one-site policy moves from rhetoric to reality. Without a one-site policy, the higher infection rates that will inevitably come with opening up the economy will mean higher rates of infection and death for seniors and other vulnerable people in long-term care facilities. This is unacceptable. The government’s failure on the one-site policy must be fixed.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we believe the government needs to embrace the Precautionary Principle, which is the foundation of workplace health and safety best practice. The Precautionary Principle stipulates that when lives are on the line, we should err on the side of caution, as opposed to simply hoping for the best. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, this means moving slowly and cautiously, rather than acting precipitously. Re-opening too soon has already led to a spike of infections and a rapid re-imposition of lockdown measures in place like South Korea and Singapore. Waiting another month – and using that month to ensure that Alberta workplaces are better prepared – could help us save lives and avoid having to take one step forward and two steps back in terms of our pandemic controls.
Quote from AFL president Gil McGowan:
“So far, Alberta’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a story of success in the community, but a failure in a growing number of workplaces. The government’s failure to be more proscriptive with employers and more aggressive with enforcement has led to unnecessary outbreaks and, sadly, a number of preventable deaths. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the government has learned from these mistakes. Their guidance for employers on the subject of re-opening the economy is weak, vague and often unclear. That’s why we’re calling for a one-month delay in the staged re-opening of our provincial economy. We need to use that time to develop and implement enforceable measures that will keep working Albertans safe as they return to their jobs. If we don’t do more to address the government’s blind spot on workplace health and safety, more people will get infected, more people will die and we’ll increase the likelihood of a second wave of infection that will necessitate a return to economically damaging and social demanding lock-down measures. Let’s take the time we need to learn from our mistakes – and save lives and the economy in the process.”
Director of Communications, AFL