By March 15, schools in Alberta had all announced they would be shutting down for the unforeseeable future. Shortly after, businesses began to do the same until the provincial government forced the rest of the non-essential services to close. Oil and gas were deemed essential.
For those industries that were deemed essential, recommendations on pandemic protocols were set out. Among those were social distancing, something that can be difficult in spaces such as oil and gas camps.
In the days that followed, the economic crash and record-low oil prices cancelled projects and laid off thousands. The job losses were tremendous, but they also meant fewer workers in plants and camps usually full to the brim with activity.
Paul, who asked only to have his first name used, said he was not impressed with the initial efforts or lack thereof. “Just before this started, even through regular flu season, little was being done. Usually, you get off a bus and have to swipe in to be allowed on site. You are now in line with dozens upon dozens of people. At the end of the day, you’re going through cattle doors. Once again, you’re with tons of people.” he explained of the process of checking in and out of secure check points in the plant.
Paul states that lunchrooms are another problem. “You’re stuck in lunchrooms that sometimes have poor sanitation. They mop the floor, but if you want the table clean, you can do that yourself with your own sanitary wipes.” He says that he asked about hand sanitizers during regular flu season, but the onus was placed on the workers for that, and he claims the bathrooms weren’t any better.
Paul recently retired but had been made aware of changes happening since the COVID-19 outbreak. “In all fairness, there have been improvements done. There is no longer a buffet-style meal. Now they give you an already plated meal.”
Camps sometimes have what is called a jack and jill bathroom, a bathroom between two bedrooms shared by two occupants. This is something that has now been shut down to prevent the spread.
However, since March 30, when Paul was interviewed, Kearl Lake, a project by Imperial Oil had an outbreak. According to an article in Fort McMurray Today dated April 27, 2020, currently there are 25 active cases on-site and 36 active cases in workers that tested positive after leaving the site. Syncrude has suffered a far lesser fate with two workers at their Mildred Lake site testing positive for COVID-19. According to an emailed statement from Imperial Oil they have implemented stringent measures to protect their employees. As of last week, they are supplying COVID tests to any employee that wants one even if they don’t have symptoms.
The email states that “The testing, organized in coordination with AHS, is voluntary, but Imperial is encouraging all members of the workforce to participate. This testing will help reduce the potential spread of the virus through identifying asymptomatic cases … We are proud to have seen a very strong uptake by our workforce. Testing results will continue to come in over the coming days.”
In a media statement released by Oil Sands Community Alliance on March 25, a vast list of steps had been outlined. Any common areas in camps such as gyms and recreation rooms have been closed. Anyone that isn’t essential is to work from home, and those who were essential had schedule changes. Lunchrooms have been completely changed, removing some tables and chairs so that people don’t eat together, taping up floors for proper distancing, no buffet service, constant cleaning and proper PPE. Even transportation to and from has changed with more flights and limited numbers of people allowed in buses and other vehicles.
In a call with Syncrude the statements above were echoed. Although Syncrude does not have its own camps some contractors stay in a camp operated by Civeo, a company that provides rooms and food for workers on location. Syncrude has handed out face masks and hand sanitizer on top of other precautions and has made sure to impose strict measures for social distancing while worker are on site and going to and from. On top of that they have sent their own list of recommendations to Civeo. Above all Syncrude makes it very clear that any employee or contractor that sees anything unsafe happening is encouraged to report it so the correct measures can be taken.
All these measures are a massive effort, but cases popping up could be a sign that something is amiss. One source, who asked to remain anonymous, was pleased with the way most companies were handling the situation, taking no chances. “In my company’s case, there is no messing around. We were all warned. If anyone was found breaking the rules or not following COVID health and safety protocols, it would be an immediate dismissal.”
However, in a recent Civeo camp stay, this source found that although all the changes mentioned were implemented, kitchen workers and cleaners were still not wearing masks. This is a danger to them and the workers staying in the camp, he says. One other thing that caught his attention was a coffee station set up so workers can independently grab coffee and fridges or freezers with condiments, and snacks such as yogurt and ice cream.
“They are trying, that’s for sure, but these little things could lead to problems down the line. Every person here is going to touch the same door handle and coffee machine. I know I’m careful and use all the hand sanitizers they have in every room, but I can’t guarantee others will. so it’s scary for sure,” he says.
Most facilities are working at about 50 per cent of their normal numbers, further allowing social distancing, but this virus has been reported as unpredictable. With other provinces releasing restrictions, a lot can change in a very short time.
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