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Industry takes precautions due to COVID-19

Updated: As the COVID-19 situation has resulted in many businesses closing their doors to keep employees and the public safe, it’s business as usual for now at Cariboo mills and mines.

“All you see is what on the news is that, so we’re at the mercy of what the mills are doing,” says United Steelworkers 1-2017 first vice president Paul French.

“They’ve tried to do everything according to plans the best I can tell; they’re not entertaining meetings or groups in large areas and trying to stick to less contact within people as they can. Hopefully, this doesn’t last long and we can all manage to weather the storm.”

French says any member who has to self-isolate or is off of work due to illness, their short term benefit package will kick in and that they have taken measures to waive the waiting period for that. He adds the mills are looking at carrying wages for people who are quarantined.

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“From what I know it’s week by week but they are all trying to be able to operate,” French says. “I think we’re lucky in our area because we haven’t had any confirmed cases yet but right now it is every day what’s the next order that comes out of the government on what we have to do; we’re no different than other places. The scary thing is for not only our members but most of the people in this area is not a lot of people can work from home. It’s easy for some people to work from home but you can’t take a mill job and do it from your house so that’s a concern, and we’re just hoping that this can fly by and everyone keeps washing their hands and doing whatever else we’re told to do and this blows over.”

The Province’s chief inspector of mines says it has communicated to all major mines, sand and gravel, and placer operations in B.C. to ensure they are complying with the orders and directives issued by the provincial health officer in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Specifically, mines in B.C. must follow the public health order prohibiting gatherings in excess of 50 people. The following recommendations apply in terms of day-to-day production and site operations:

  • Reduce the number of on-site personnel by encouraging work from home where feasible.
  • In-person town hall meetings used to address the whole site must be avoided for groups of more than 50 people. Communication should continue in smaller groups or via other media.
  • Daily pre-shift safety meetings (toolbox meetings) affecting more than 50 people are to be held in smaller numbers or via other media.
  • Reduce in-person meetings and other gatherings where possible.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said industrial sites are less risky environments even though there may be a lot of people there.

Henry said she encourages employers to look at reducing the number of employees on a site if possible, making sure employees are not congregating in areas where they are spending a lot of time together for example at lunches and breaks, and that they have opportunities when in enclosed spaces to separate from each other.

“You can have staggered schedules for example,” Henry said. “But for most industrial sites this is not a difficult accommodation and it’s something that employers should pay attention to.”

In a letter to West Fraser Soda Creek division employees in Williams Lake, West Fraser said it has taken several precautions to limit the spread of any possible virus by reducing or eliminating personnel contact.

“Strategies like eliminating time clocks, sanitizing lunchrooms in between shifts, closing the main office and plants to non-essential foot traffic, and eliminating crew talks and meetings on the site have reduced our interactions with one another and individuals outside of our division,” the letter stated.

In addition to practicing good hygiene like washing hands regularly, the letter advised employees to be cautious of their personnel space and those around them.

“Six feet is the recommended distance for interacting with one another. Please be respectful of this during lunchtime and coffee breaks. Even when interacting on the floor of the mill, use devices such as radios when communicating around loud machinery.”

Faced with some extremely unusual circumstances with the COVID-19 virus, the letter added like the fires of 2017 we will pull together and overcome it.

“We will follow our local medical authorities in terms of direction on our ability to continue to run. Furthermore, the lumber markets during these trying times may force us into taking some downtime. Traditionally, our division has always avoided major downtime, as displayed in 2019, with good costs, production, grade and recovery, so we need to continue this focus to avoid production curtailments as much as possible.”

(Note: Listen to Taseko Mines Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Brian Battison with the author of this report in the audio file below) 

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