Roquette site falls prey to pandemic

The site of the pea processing facility, due to open late this year, has now had several COVID-19 cases

The site of the pea-processing facility, due to open late this year, has now had several COVID-19 cases

The site of the under-construction Roquette pea protein plant at Portage la Prairie has joined the list of workplaces fighting COVID-19.

Roquette confirmed five positive tests for COVID-19 on the site as of Nov. 9.

“Four of the affected individuals are contracted construction workers helping to build the plant,” Michelle Finley, Roquette’s communications and public affairs manager for Canada, said. “The fifth is a Roquette Canada employee whose case is not related to the first four.”

Why it matters: Five COVID-19 cases have been reported at Roquette’s site in Portage la Prairie.

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Finley said the company was notified Nov. 6 that a construction worker had tested positive, following exposure from a family member. All contractors were made aware of the positive case that day.

Following contact tracing, four other workers were found to be close contacts of that first case and were tested. Three of those four had carpooled with the first positive case and have since tested positive, Finley said. The final close contact tested negative.

“Based on this worker’s negative test result, we believe that no transmission of COVID has taken place on the construction site and transmission likely occurred while the workers were carpooling to the construction site from Winnipeg,” she said.

The three cases were reported to contractors within 12 hours, she added.

The company has also referred 20 additional workers, who may have been in close contact with positive cases, to see if they also need testing.

“All workers currently off site related to this positive case are from two contractor firms and will require clearance from Shared Health to return,” Finley said.

The fifth case, a Roquette Canada employee, was infected through community transmission, according to Finley. The company was made aware of that case Nov. 8 and, while it was reported to all Roquette Canada staff and contractors within 24 hours, Finley said contract tracing did not find other close contacts within Roquette.

The construction site became the focus of an anonymous Reddit post Nov. 9, which reported claims of insufficient worker protections against COVID-19.

The poster, who said they were a site worker posting anonymously for fear of losing their job, described insufficient cleaning for common touch points and bathrooms, cited lack of social distancing within lunch trailers of several contractors, and accused site management of prioritizing job completion over worker health.

Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said Nov. 10 that he had no details regarding the Roquette site.

Finley said Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health had issued an order to improve record-keeping when if came to sanitizing communal washroom spaces. Specifically, that checklists in the washrooms need more pages and that more daily cleanings should be done.

“Compliance with this order is nearly complete and we are expecting a followup visit from Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health next week,” she said, adding that on-site custodial staff was more than doubling, from nine to 19, to help address that need.

“We are confident that the Portage pea protein plant construction site and Roquette Canada have the most current COVID prevention measures in place to continue to provide a safe environment for all workers,” she added.

Contractors are responsible for sanitization and social distancing inside their own trailers, she said, as well as enforcing provincial health and workplace safety guidelines among their workers.

“I can confirm that we have been working collaboratively with Manitoba Public Health and Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health over the past couple of weeks to ensure our COVID prevention measures are following best industry practices,” she said.

One contractor was asked by Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health to improve sanitation and social distance in their trailer, she noted, adding that an inspection has since been done and Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health is, “satisfied with the measures taken.”

Finley also noted other measures against COVID-19 at the construction site, including mandatory mask use at the construction site and in offices; a third-party safety audit commissioned in April, with a followup slated for November; temperature checks for everyone coming on the construction site and daily health checks. The project has also added a full-time health and safety professional to its roster to prevent COVID-19. Washrooms and high-touch surfaces are to be sanitized four to six times a day, all workers crossing the provincial border are tested and daily updates and weekly COVID-19 bulletins are issued, Finley said.

Roussin said response level in the case of a COVID-19 workplace safety concern — such as whether a workplace can continue to operate, but with an improvement order, or whether stronger action is needed — depends on circumstance.

“Depending on the sector involved, there’s usually a number of agencies that are involved,” he said.

When COVID-19 cases cropped up at food-processing sites in Manitoba, he noted, response has involved the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Manitoba Public Health, Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health and Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development.

Sudhir Sandhu, CEO of Manitoba Building Trades, said their member unions will be working both with Roquette and contractors to ensure proper distancing and isolation policies.

Manitoba Building Trades represents 13 unions, including local branches of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union; International Brotherhood of Boilermakers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons; and unions representing heavy equipment operators, welders, pipefitters, plumbers, sheet metal workers and roofers, and insulators.

The financial hit for workers asked to isolate is foremost among their concerns, Sandhu said.

While they expect the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba to kick in for workers who test positive for COVID-19, Sandhu says that does not necessarily extend to workers asked to isolate, but who test negative.

“That’s where our attention is now,” he said. “In consultation and discussions with all of the parties concerned to make sure that we contain any possibility of further isolation and also, then, to look after the people who are being adversely impacted.”

Manitoba Building Trades faced similar issues at the Keeyask hydro dam site, Sandhu noted, adding there has been no indication whether workers there who were asked to isolate, but did not test positive, will be covered for the weeks they were not at work. Employment Insurance meanwhile, he argued, is a time-intensive process.

As a temporary workforce, construction workers typically do not have paid sick days, he added, “so the impact is much more dire.”

“The facts speak for themselves,” he said. “That we did have infections at sites and that means that there are issues with how well workers are given protections to prevent infection.”

He did, however, note challenges with maintaining social distance in construction work.

Construction could continue at sites like Roquette as new COVID-19 restrictions came into effect Nov. 12, Roussin said. Earlier that week, Roussin announced the province would be moving to level red, or critical, under the Manitoba Pandemic Response system. Non-essential businesses in Manitoba were required to close, except for e-commerce, delivery and curbside pickup.

“Agriculture-related businesses are listed in the critical services; construction is listed in the critical services in that manner,” he said.

The pea protein plant is still on schedule to open by the end of 2020, Roquette has said.

About the author

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Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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