Tar sands/oil sands workers in the midst of Alberta’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon bitumen mine say their living and working conditions are putting them at risk—but they can’t afford not to work, even if they’re feeling sick.
“Contractors who spoke to CBC News on condition their names not be used said they are working with inadequate physical distancing, sanitization, and testing,” CBC reports. “They allege that workers who get sick are left alone in their camp rooms, without proper access to hygiene, food, and medical care—and without pay.”
CNRL, which is also up against outbreaks at its Jackfish and Albian facilities, says it’s fighting the coronavirus using “stringent” outbreak protocols that meet or exceed those established by AHS, CBC adds. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Alberta Health Services is in “constant contact” with companies to make sure outbreak protocols are in place.
But with 1,361 people infected, 447 active cases, and two dead at the Horizon mine as of Wednesday, workers are telling the national broadcaster a different story.
“We don’t feel safe here but we keep working because everybody wants to work,” said one contractor. “We don’t make enough money sitting at home” on employment insurance.
Another contractor at the Horizon mine said he’d had to share an unsanitized washroom with 50 other people. Workers travel together in “cramped” shuttle buses, CBC says, and “eat together in crowded lunchrooms”.
“In the washrooms, we don’t even have hand sanitizer,” the worker said. “I am sharing my washroom and shower with someone who has COVID every week…I have been in a lunchroom with 36 people and 34 of them had tested positive for COVID.”
CNRL said it uses daily health checks, screening, physical distancing, and rapid testing to try to keep the virus under control. But CBC reports that “hundreds of oilsands workers have quarantined at work camps during the pandemic. With the third wave, entire floors of worker housing are operating as quarantine zones,” and when cases began to surge last month, infected workers had to be moved out of overfilled quarantine camps to nearby hotels.
“We’re all feeling like, head down, blinders on. Don’t even look around you and just try to get through your shift without getting sick,” said a contractor at the Albian mining project. “We’re all scared. It’s a terrible way to have to work.”
The contractor “said she uses mining equipment that goes unsanitized. She said she shares a washroom with two roommates who continue to work despite persistent coughs,” CBC writes. “The woman said many workers are flouting the rules and that restrictions around masking and physical distancing are not being enforced. A lack of pay for contractors on isolation time has some ignoring their symptoms, she said.”
“I’ve heard them even say, ‘I feel like shit, but I’ve got to go because I can’t miss that day’s pay,'” the contractor told CBC. Staff are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they try to discuss the problem with management.
In addition to Horizon and Albian, CBC identifies Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site, Suncor Energy’s base plant, and ExxonMobil’s Kearl Lake project as operations with 100 or more cases.