Roquette site in Portage la Prairie scene of COVID-19 cluster

PANDEMIC: The site of the pea processing facility, due to open late this year, has now had several cases

The site of the under-construction Roquette pea protein plant in 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.”

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.

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Following contact tracing, four other workers were found to be close contacts of that first COVID-19 case, and were tested. Three of those four have since tested positive and test results are pending for the fourth person. Those three carpooled with the first positive case, Finley said.

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

The company has also referred 20 additional workers, who may have been close contact with the workers that have so far tested positive, 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 has also become the focus of in an anonymous post on the website Reddit on 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 like handrails, tools, equipment and bathrooms, cited lack of social distancing within lunch trailers of several contractors, and accused site management of prioritizing job completion over worker health.

The post further said that Manitoba Public Health had been on site multiple times and had noted problems, but that no changes were made.

Manitoba Public Health did not respond with comment as of press time.

Finley said Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health had issued an order to improve recordkeeping 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 follow up visit from Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health next week,” she said, adding that on-site custodial staff was over 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 follow-up 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.

Sudhir Sandhu, CEO of Manitoba Building Trades, said they were aware of, “a number of cases that have affected workers at that site,” but said they don’t have detailed information on the possible source of infection.

Manitoba Building Trades represents 13 unions, including local branches of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union; International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers; 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.

Sandhu said Manitoba Building Trades will be reaching out to its member unions for more detail on concerns raised, and which have yet to be addressed.

“We know there are concerns, but it’s also relevant as to when the concerns were raised,” he said. “If they are from 10 days ago and they’ve been remedied, then it could be a resolved situation.”

Roquette maintains that the pea protein plant is still on schedule to open by the end of 2020.

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@AlexisStockford

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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