Canada Post failed to accurately report a massive COVID-19 outbreak at its Mississauga plant that saw more than 300 workers test positive for the virus, according to a federal directive obtained by the Star.
Following an “off-site” inspection conducted Jan. 27 by Employment and Social Development Canada, a senior investigator found the Crown corporation contravened federal labour laws when it “failed to notify” the ministry after first becoming aware of a potential outbreak.
Canada Post also failed to submit an investigation report into a “hazardous occurrence” as required by law, after the first cases of its employees testing positive for the virus on Jan. 5.
The Crown corporation said in a statement that it has reported all COVID cases as required to the local health unit. But federally regulated employers like the postal service must also investigate workplace illnesses and report their findings under the Canada Labour Code.
These investigations and reporting requirements “play an important role in preventing similar incidents from re-occurring in the future,” according to ESDC’s website.
In a set of directions issued this week, the federal labour authority ordered Canada Post to remedy its contraventions by the end of the March.
Canada Post spokesperson Phil Legault said the corporation shared the “same goal as ESDC and public health officials — to ensure we are doing everything possible to keep our employees safe.”
“When they raise concerns or issue directives, we work with them to ensure we understand and then take the necessary steps to comply,” Legault said. “If there are improvements to be made, we make them.”
Canadian Union of Postal Workers national president Jan Simpson said the corporation and public health authorities “must make sure health and safety protocols are implemented and respected,” including access to proper personal protective equipment, appropriate physical distancing, and rapid testing.
“CUPW continues to demand an investigation into the root cause of the outbreak at the Gateway facility so we can fix whatever issues led to the outbreak and make sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
In a statement, an ESDC spokesperson confirmed its labour program conducted an inspection into the “preventative measures implemented” at the Gateway facility, but said findings could not be shared for confidentiality reasons.
“The inspection is now complete. The Labour Program is not conducting any additional inspections at this time,” the statement said.
Canada Post began on-site testing for the virus at the direction of Peel Public Health in mid-January, but testing was initially only mandatory for one shift. As the outbreak grew, the facility implemented mandatory testing for all employees, and all afternoon shift workers were ordered to self-isolate for two weeks.
At the time of ESDC’s Jan. 27 off-site inspection, more than 200 workers had tested positive for the virus and one had died from it.
Legault said the facility had followed public health guidance and respected “any directives they make to help us put safety first.”
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“As part of that effort, we report every positive case involving employees to the local public health agencies,” he said. “We take each situation seriously and inform employees, local unions and follow cleaning and sanitization protocols based on public health guidance. We also enforce important measures like physical distancing and mask-wearing in all facilities.”
The Crown corporation’s Oshawa warehouse also experienced a COVID outbreak last year, according to public health documents obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request. Legault did not confirm how many workers tested positive in that outbreak.
Warehousing and distribution centres are responsible for more than 1,100 of the total COVID cases linked to workplace outbreaks in Peel to date — more than 40 per cent, according to public health data.
The region is home to a large population of essential workers; as previously reported by the Star, more than 80 per cent of warehouse workers in the GTA are based in Peel.
Last month, Ontario’s Labour Ministry launched an inspection blitz of the hard-hit sector in Peel, noting the “high percentage of temporary workers” employed in warehouses. (Canada Post does not fall under provincial jurisdiction).
At a Wednesday press conference, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the blitz found 57 per cent of the 208 warehouses visited were compliant with health and safety requirements. The ministry issued 26 tickets for contraventions.
“More needed to be done when it came to workplace safety plans, screening and masking,” McNaughton said.
A previous blitz of big-box stores found a 69 per cent compliance rate, which the provincial labour minister said was “not good enough.”
The ministry did not say which warehouses were visited in the latest campaign, but said Amazon — a significant employer in the region — has been inspected 15 times, “including last month.”
McNaughton said the ministry has hired an additional 100 health and safety inspectors and is also “working with local public health officials to tackle the hot spots that they’re seeing.”
On Wednesday, Toronto’s medical officer of health issued a new order requiring all workplaces with an active outbreak to ensure mask use, maintain proper distancing in common areas like lunchrooms, appoint a contact person for communications with public health and keep a record of every worker who attended the workplace during the outbreak.
Workplace capacity must also be reduced to 25 per cent occupancy in the event of an outbreak, the order says.
Failure to follow the new rules could lead to fines up to $25,000 for a corporation and $5,000 for an individual.
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering work and wealth for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz
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