May 21, 2021 - No. 47

Four Workers Die of COVID-19 in Alberta Oil Sands

Unacceptable COVID-19 Outbreaks
in Oil Sands Workplaces

Oil Sands Workers Speak Out About Their Conditions

Four Workers Die of COVID-19 in Alberta Oil Sands

Unacceptable COVID-19 Outbreaks in 
Oil Sands Workplaces

The Wood Buffalo region in Alberta where Fort McMurray is located has been overwhelmed by a rapid spike in the number of people infected with COVID-19. Three workers have died in the largest outbreak, at the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) mine and upgrader 70 kms. north of Fort McMurray. A security guard at the Suncor base plant has also died after contracting COVID-19. Workers' Forum extends its deepest sympathy to the families, friends and co-workers of those who died, and those fighting for their lives, none of whom have been identified by name.

CNRL and other oil sands mines and in-situ extraction sites have had outbreaks for many months. Cases began to surge in April after the regular maintenance period known as shutdowns or turnarounds began. The turnaround at CNRL alone involved a peak workforce of 5,000 workers above the normal daily average. It has recently become public that 258 workers tested positive between October 2020 and May 1, and 1,169 workers tested positive between April 2 and May 13, with 447 cases remaining active as of May 13.

CNRL is also contending with outbreaks at its Jackfish and Albian sites. There are also outbreaks at Imperial Oil Kearl Lake, MEG Energy Conklin site, Suncor Firebag, Fort Hills and Mackay River, and Syncrude Aurora and Mildred Lake sites.

The Alberta government and health authorities have deliberately suppressed information about the outbreaks. This was possible in part because workers who commute are included in case counts in their home cities or regions, so the real impact of the outbreaks in the camps and work sites is hidden. The majority of the 10,000 workers now involved in maintenance turnarounds come from outside the Wood Buffalo area. Large numbers of oil sands workers also commute, and some sites are strictly fly-in/fly-out where all workers commute, working 14 days of 12 hour shifts and returning home for 14 days.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) has not been on the CNRL Horizon site since March despite the crisis, instead reporting that "regular contact with the site continues." Alberta Occupational Health and Safety is completely silent. CNRL has responded to workers' reports of lack of sanitary measures and proper treatment for workers who are in quarantine or need medical treatment by saying it is taking all necessary measures. Alberta Health Services has continued its "hands off" approach, allowing CNRL and other oil sands monopolies to "self-monitor." The same approach was taken with Cargill last year, which was followed by a massive outbreak there, subsequent large outbreaks at other Alberta meat packing plants and now the oil sands. Production workers at CNRL are not unionized. Workers involved in the turnarounds come from different trades not only from Alberta but across Canada and Quebec.

When last on site at Horizon in March, AHS noted that there was a need for such basic measures as sufficient hand sanitizer, further controls to allow physical distancing and additional cleaning supplies to be available in trailers.

AHS also states that it has provided the oil sands companies with a large number of rapid tests, and is now offering onsite immunization clinics at industrial camps and sites in Wood Buffalo, with CNRL Horizon the first site completed, according to an email sent to Global News. "More than 136,000 rapid tests have been provided to CNRL for its two sites to help detect COVID-19 and protect workers," AHS stated.

The failure of the government and health agencies to uphold their social responsibility to the workers and their communities has exposed the extent to which the government considers the workers in the industries it has deemed essential as "expendable." Workers and others are speaking out against the callous disregard by the operators and the government of their health and that of their families and communities.

Living quarters at an oil sands work camp North of Fort McMurray. (Narwhal)

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Oil Sands Workers Speak Out
About Their Conditions

Workers at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), both workers performing turnaround maintenance and production workers, together with their families, are speaking out about their dangerous and unacceptable working and living conditions which put them at high risk. By smashing the silence, the fraud presented by the companies, the government and Alberta Health Services gets exposed. If the workers do not speak out, governments get away with the way in which they protect the monopolies and the crimes they are committing at the expense of Canada's workers, social and natural environment. 

Alberta Health Services (AHS) has not been at the CNRL Horizon site since March. Workers report that the conditions now are the same or worse than those identified by AHS in March. These include inadequate physical distancing, overcrowded lunchrooms, washroom facilities shared by as many as 50 workers which makes sanitizing impossible, and crowded buses from the camp to the worksite.

"In the washrooms, we don't even have hand sanitizer," a worker told CBC. "I am sharing my washroom and shower with someone who has COVID, and every week I have been in a lunchroom with 36 people and 34 of them had tested positive for COVID."

The workers point out that weekly testing is in no way sufficient in the face of this kind of outbreak. As well, workers told Workers' Forum that while CNRL was responsible for contact tracing, neither CNRL nor AHS had provided the necessary human resources to carry out contact tracing, and that workers were being told that they had been in close contact with an infected person when the necessary quarantine period was almost over.

Workers are speaking about how they were treated when they became sick, left alone in closet-like rooms in the "isolation floors" of the camp, without proper medical care or food and without pay. Some infected workers have also been shuttled to hotels.

The wife of a worker now in an Edmonton ICU told Global News that her husband tested positive on April 23, about a month after arriving at the CNRL Horizon site in late March for the turnaround. "This job was important to our family as COVID-19 resulted in my husband's place of work being shut down over a year ago," she explained. After testing positive he remained in camp as he was on a 12 day work and 2 day off rotation, soon began experiencing symptoms and then became very ill. During an entire week in isolation he received no medical attention. When, at his family's urging, he called for help, he was assessed by a paramedic, immediately taken to hospital in Fort McMurray and is now in an Edmonton ICU where his condition remains serious.

Workers are speaking out about how they don't feel safe but keep working because they need the work, and the "turnaround" season is a major source of work for many of the trades. For these global oligarchs and the governments which serve them to treat the workers, whose hard work creates the wealth, as expendable is intolerable and should be treated for what it is, criminal negligence. When they speak out, discussion develops and the workers contribute to smashing the norm imposed on them that this situation is acceptable. Employers must be made to take responsibility for workers who get sick as a result of the workplace and governments must be made to take responsibility for the actions of the employers. Workers are not expendable. They must be paid when sick or unemployed through no fault of their own. Our security lies in fighting for the lives of all! Fighting for the lives of all is a matter of fighting for the rights of all!

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