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LNG Canada workers complained about unsafe conditions prior to COVID outbreak

Employees at the LNG Canada work site in Kitimat complained multiple times about unsafe working conditions just months before the facility experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, according to WorkSafe BC inspection reports.

Employees at the LNG Canada work site in Kitimat complained multiple times about unsafe  working conditions just months before the facility experienced a  COVID-19 outbreak, according to WorkSafe BC inspection reports. 

The  outbreak at LNG Canada started on Nov. 19 and there are now 54 cases. In  the months leading up to the outbreak, workers raised concerns about  COVID-19 cleaning procedures in common areas, rooms and work spaces,  prompting inspections by WorkSafe BC on Aug. 28 and Oct. 19.

The documents also reveal that a WorkSafe BC inspection of the Site C work camp’s sewage treatment facility in northeast B.C. on March 19  found the facility did not have a plan to sufficiently protect workers  from pathogens, body fluids, human waste, mould and COVID-19. 

WorkSafe BC didn’t say if or how the issues flagged during the inspection were resolved.

The first case of COVID-19 at Site C was in July and there have been 17 cases to date. On Dec. 4, BC Hydro reported five active cases and 18 people in self-isolation.

The revelations come as calls grow for B.C. to shut down work camps or risk  further community spread with northern hospitals already stretched thin.

More than 180 frontline health workers have signed an open letter to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that started circulating  on Thursday, calling on her to immediately shut down industrial work  camps on Indigenous territories.

“To put  the interests of economy and industry ahead of Indigenous lives is not  public health,” the letter says. “To put Indigenous Elders and youth at  further risk in the midst of a pandemic is to say quite clearly that  Indigenous lives still do not matter in B.C.”

On Thursday, the Unist’ot’en Camp said Coastal GasLink confirmed five new cases at its camp 9A on Unist’ot’en territory. Sley’do Molly Wickham, Gidimt’en Camp  spokesperson, said at least one Wet’suwet’en worker in a Coastal GasLink  work camp recently contracted the virus and is now hospitalized in an  induced coma.

David Bowering, former chief medical officer for Northern Health, said the  time has come for the province to shift gears and take a harder look at  what it deems essential. 

“Is it  industry first, or the health and safety of the population in the north  first? They need to rethink the essential designation and say it’s not  that essential, certainly not at this price.”

Coastal  GasLink, BC Hydro and the Ministry of Health did not respond to  interview requests prior to publication. LNG Canada declined an  interview request.

Bowering told The Narwhal he’s surprised it took this long for an outbreak in the work camps to occur. 

In the early days of the pandemic, he wrote an open letter to Henry urging her to shut down the work camps, calling them “land  locked cruise ships” and warning that cases related to these industrial  sites were inevitable. He knows what he’s talking about — his first job  as a doctor was at a mining camp. 

He called the safety plans prepared by LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink “deluxe” documents but says the best plans in the world don’t mean anything if people aren’t following the rules. 

“They have  luxury-class health and safety plans and luxury-class consultants  compared to what the public sector can afford,” he said. “The virus  doesn’t respect paper protocols. There’s just too much human nature  involved.”

Wickham  said she has frequently seen workers flouting the rules. “We know that  they’re not following even the basic protocols like wearing masks when  they’re in vehicles together or when they’re close working closely with  one another,” she said. “And they’re certainly not wearing masks when  they’re interacting with our people on the territory.”

Bowering is concerned that capacity at Northern Health hospitals is already stretched thin. In a statement released yesterday, the health authority said it is “experiencing an increase in COVID-19  activity and hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients requiring critical  care.” 

There 235 active cases in the region including 33 people in hospital. 

Patients have already been transferred to hospitals outside the region to deal with the increase. 

“I think  we’re in for a rough ride,” Bowering said. “The worry about our local  hospitals and our local staff being overwhelmed, burned out and having  difficulty coping, that’s becoming a pretty clear reality. Our  communities need help.”

Bowering isn’t alone in his calls to shut down work camps.

The open letter from frontline health workers calls for Henry to take “immediate action” and shut down work camps.  

“As health  professionals, we have a responsibility to uphold the current and  future health of these communities, which are now under threat from the  continuing of Coastal GasLink (LNG) work and man camps,” the letter  says. 

The frontline health workers’ letter is in support of concerns raised by more than 20 Wet’suwet’en matriarchs, or Ts’ako ze’, in an open letter to Henry dated Nov. 30. In that letter, the matriarchs asked the public health officer to  reconsider the essential designation given to the oil and gas industry  and close work camps, which have also been shown to increase violence against Indigenous women and children and bring a host of social ills. 

“Not only  have we witnessed an increase in drugs, alcohol and gang-related  violence in our communities, we are now faced with a disease that could  kill any one of us,” the matriarchs wrote. “In addition to the risk man  camps have on our Indigenous women and girls, we are now facing the loss  of some of our most sacred elders and chiefs.”

At the time of publication, the Ts’ako ze’ said they had not received a response from the public health officer.

The calls to shut down work camps come in the wake of a damning independent review that found widespread racism and discrimination against Ingienous  people in B.C. health care. The 224-page report released on Nov. 30  found that racism and discrimination negatively affect the treatment and  health outcomes of Indigenous people, who are already at higher risk of  health issues due to a number of factors realted to systemic racism,  such a poverty and intergenerational trauma. 

“Many  Indigenous people have underlying health conditions because of all of  the impacts of colonization,” Wickham said. “We have higher rates of  diabetes and higher rates of heart disease. Our people are at greater  risk of dying.”

Wickham  said a particularly alarming aspect to the increase in cases in work  camps is the potential impact on Indigenous communities. Most industrial  operations have a mandate to hire local and Indigenous workers and  those people mix with transient workers and, on their days off, with  members of their own communities. 

Bowering said the continued presence of industrial activity is contradictory to  the goals of the public health office. “I drive by First Nations  [communities] and see the barriers and the closed signs — these people  are trying remarkably hard to stay safe,” he said. “But at the same  time, there are buses coming and going to many of them, up to the mines  and back.”

The BC Centre for Disease Control noted in its guidance document for industrial sites that Indigenous people are at higher risk of COVID-19 and recommended  that employers limit its workers’ interactions in surrounding towns. But  Bowering and Wickham said the presence of out of town workers in the  region is both common and on the rise. 

“We have  been concerned about not just the man camps, but the fact that a lot of  the workers are living in our communities and hotels,” Wickham said.  “They’re going back and forth every day.”

Bowering  said the B.C. public health office can easily put the brakes on what  could quickly become a serious and escalating crisis in high-risk  communities.

“They have  to decide whether having everybody else not travelling, but allowing  these workers to travel is a reasonable public health decision? Is it  even ethically reasonable?”

Meanwhile, activity on Wet’suwet’en territory is increasing.

“The whole  territory is just crawling with workers,” Wickham said. She lives with  her partner and three children in a cabin near the Coastal GasLink work  zone. “They have helicopters flying overhead at least two or three times  a day, both surveillance helicopters and industry helicopters slinging  materials in and out of the territory. It’s a warzone out there.”

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