A friend and I were chatting the other day about the ongoing occupational health and safety (OHS) problems at the Cargill meat-processing plant in High River. More than half of the 2000 workers at the plant have contracted COVID-19 and, subsequently, spread it to family members. One worker and one family member have died.
Cargill would make an interesting teaching case for an OHS class because it exemplifies so many of the tensions and trends that OHS practitioners have to grapple with. In no particular order and off the top of my head:
1. Hazard control: Workplace design is an important factor in this outbreak (close proximity) and the employer had chosen controls (basically PPE) that are at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls (cheapo and less effective) to avoid having to redesign the work.
2. Internal responsibility system: Workers flagged COVID concerns to the employer early in the pandemic and the employer under-responded, resulting in worker injury. This is evidence of the limited effectiveness of the IRS.
3. State inspection: Alberta’s inspection (via FaceTime) of the plant in response to complaints was inadequate and green-lit the employer for continued operations when the plant wasn’t safe. This is evidence that Alberta’s inspection regime is basically ineffective (this pattern is evident elsewhere in Canada).
4. Refusals: While Cargill workers are not yet refusing unsafe work, refusals in COVID are being denied in several jurisdictions. This demonstrate the practical weakness of workers’ safety rights, which are individual. The right to collective action (including mid-term strikes) might be much more effective at protecting workers.
5. Penalties: We’ll have to see how the government’s investigation plays out, but I would bet Cargill gets off with effectively no sanctions. Creating a law that fails to punish likely contributes to employer’s disregarding the law.
6. Injury recognition and disease: Some forms of injury have greater recognition than other. Employer responses to COVID have been inadequate, in part because injury causation is a bit murky (did you get it at work or in the community?). WCB compensation is also going to be interesting to watch.
7. Precarious work: Broadly speaking, employment precarity appears to increase workers’ exposure to COVID. Cargill’s workers, although unionized and eligible for CERB during the shut down, face profound economic pressure to return to work.
8. Precarious citizenship: The Cargill workers who are temporary foreign workers have effectively no choice but to go back to work for Cargill because of their restricted labour mobility. This is a good example of intersectionality where precarious employment and precarious citizenship compound workers’ vulnerability to employer misbehaviour.
9. Racialized workers: Most Cargill workers are either new resident or temporary foreign workers. Some of the discourse around this outbreak has been racist, with efforts to blame cultural practices (which are really just rational responses to economic exploitation) for the spread of the disease.
10. Public health: There isn’t a bright line between occupational and public health hazards. COVID caught at work has spread into the community and into other workplaces. But the linkages between OHS and public health have been limited. And public health’s engagement with employers has seemed naïve.
11. Profit: The underlying driver of Cargill’s behaviour has been maintaining production (and thus profit-making). Some of the costs of this are being externalized onto workers in the form of ill health.
This case would make a fascinating teaching case to carry through an entire OHS course. It also suggests that things at Cargill are so bad that it reveals Alberta’s OHS system as a sham.
-- Bob Barnetson