FERNIE, B.C. — Teck Resources is reducing its workforce by 50 per cent at its Elk Valley operations after concerns were raised the company was not doing enough to protect employees and contractors from COVID-19 at its four operating metallurgical coal mines near Fernie, B.C., in the West Kootenays.
Teck, Canada’s largest diversified mining company, employs 3,000 people at its Elk Valley operations and houses out-of-town workers at a 500-person lodge at its Elkview mine site, which is currently undergoing a scheduled upgrade.
On Friday, The Narwhal published reports from employees expressing concern about the company’s lack of suitable safety measures in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. One mine employee, who The Narwhal is choosing not to name for privacy concerns, reported on Facebook that he is infected with COVID-19. Since then, numerous additional workers from Teck mines have contacted The Narwhal to voice their frustrations with a lack of workplace safety, saying the company’s public response measures to the coronavirus differ starkly from the reality on the ground.
On Sunday, local officials — including the mayors of Sparwood, Elkford and Fernie — wrote to Teck, stating “the most significant danger of this pandemic reaching our doors is through transient travel that occurs daily in the Elk Valley.”
Teck’s Elkview work camp, the representatives wrote, “is of significant concern to local government. … The transient nature of the work camp aids itself to a higher exposure to COVID-19.”
The mayors requested Teck Resources “review the Elkview work camp immediately and delay [planned] upgrades to the Elkview Plant.” The Elkview mine currently produces and processes 7 million tonnes of coal each year. The planned upgrades will increase the Elkview processing plant’s output from 7 to 9 million tonnes.
Chris Stannell, public relations manager for Teck, said the Elkview work camp, known as the ‘lodge,’ will operate at 70 per cent occupancy for the next two weeks, saying only 320 of the facility’s 484 beds are currently occupied.
“The dining room of the lodge will no longer allow residents to be seated and meals will be for take-out only,” Stannell told The Narwhal. “Residents are to eat in their rooms or take meals to the work site, following social distancing protocols. While in line for meals, residents must be two metres apart to observe proper social distancing.”
The accommodation at the lodge, according to one recent resident, are “Jack and Jill rooms,” with every bathroom shared by two rooms. This worker said some out-of-town contractors had chosen to leave or stay home, but it was “pretty much business as usual for those who choose to stay… The camp is not the most sanitary place at the best of times.”
Questions to Teck about room arrangements, including whether bathrooms are now being used privately, for instance, were not answered, but Stannell said food waste must be disposed of immediately by each individual, and the lodge’s common recreational spaces — which include a movie theatre and a gym — have been closed.
Two-week reduction in workforce proposed by Teck
Teck’s Elkview facilities, which include a mine and a coal processing plant, are located three kilometres from the company’s Elk Valley headquarters in Sparwood.
While Teck has suspended construction activities at its mining operations in Chile and banned out-of-state travel for workers at its Alaskan Red Dog mine, a scheduled upgrade for the Elkview processing plant, which began on March 17, will continue on, according to a number of Teck employees and contractors spoken to by The Narwhal. The facility is expected to come back online in early April.
The United Steelworkers Union Local 9346, which represents hourly workers at Teck’s Elkview and Coal Mountain operations, sent out a text on Monday evening, informing workers that the reduced workforce at the Elkview facilities will occur via rotating shifts.
“Elkview Management and the Local Union have agreed the best way to achieve an orderly reduction in the quickest possible way is through a 50/50 split where half the workforce will stay home paid for one set, and the other half paid at home the next set,” the message, now posted to the union’s website, reads.
“This is the quickest way to achieve social distancing requirements.”
In a statement posted on its website Teck confirmed “all employees available for work will continue to be paid as normal during this two-week period.” The company said it will reassess the situation in two weeks time “in light of the evolving situation.”
Teck said the reduction in workforce is taking place in addition to “extensive preventative measures already implemented,” which “include enhanced disinfection protocols, eliminating all large group gatherings and reducing bus occupancy, screening contractors and external visitors, requiring employees with symptoms not to come to work and self isolate, and implementing work from home where feasible.”
Teck did not respond when asked to clarify how “available” workers would be defined and whether contractors employed on Teck sites would also be paid if unable to work.
The union asked for patience from workers, saying “these are difficult times.”
“Our inspectors are in regular contact with mines and are requesting updates on the measures they take with regards to COVID-19,” Kent Karemaker, of the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, told The Narwhal on Wednesday afternoon, adding the ministry is “aware of concerns raised from workers in the mining industry around mine COVID-19 safety measures.” Karemaker said that B.C. companies “must continue to adapt” to the “quickly evolving” orders given by Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.
Social distancing a challenge at Teck’s Elkview operations
Despite the measures being taken by Teck, some workers have told The Narwhal conditions on site make it difficult to work safely, especially for workers whose responsibilities require being in close quarters with other individuals.
One Teck employee who works at the Elkview operation and who asked not to be named told The Narwhal he feels the company is doing the best it can to quickly adapt to the reality of the novel coronavirus.
“I hope people realize that the company is being very generous towards the workers with the paid time off. For my wages, that’s an extra $2,000 or so in vacation time. Factor in the large number of employees and Teck is paying a lot of wages they certainly don’t have to,” he said.
But, he acknowledged, the Elkview mine puts workers into very close quarters with one another. “I just don’t think that we can contain it like senior management and shareholders are hoping we can.”
“Things aren’t the same at each mine, either,” a different employee told The Narwhal. “Each mine is different.”
Over the weekend there were reports that some bus services had been increased, while others hadn’t. Commute buses seem to be sanitized more regularly than field buses, but three employees who spoke to The Narwhal said they were expected to clean their own vehicles, a task many refuse to do as it is not part of their jobs.
The extent of social distancing on the field vans, one member of staff told The Narwhal, consisted of putting six people on an eight-seater field bus. Employees are not permitted to park at mine operations without parking passes and are provided bus access to sites.
“So gross,” wrote one Elkview camp worker on social media of the “packed” bus he’d been on earlier that day. “There were people coughing and shit [aboard,] I’m almost ready to say fuck it and just stay home.”
“They’re trying their best,” a contractor says of Teck, but added they and colleagues were frustrated by inconsistencies. On Tuesday evening, for instance, Teck informed contractors at Elkview temperature checks, using forehead thermometers, would be implemented at all access points to the plant, but the next morning these checks were skipped due to a “malfunction” with the thermometers. By Wednesday evening, some contractors were seen returning for the night shift without any screening whatsoever. Some jobs are done “with minimal crews,” one contractor said, while others continue to run “with three people to a truck.”
In practice, one contractor says, “there is no social distancing in a situation like that,” either at the lodge or at the Elkview plant, simply because of “the mass amount of contractors on site.”
“Staying a metre from your co-workers is just not possible,” another employee wrote The Narwhal. “You can try your best to social distance,” another contractor said, “but there’s so many surfaces that everyone touches. I guarantee that handrail [for instance] has been touched by twenty people since it was last disinfected.”
Over the last week The Narwhal has spoken to or directly corresponded with 22 employees or contractors who currently work at or have previously worked at Teck’s Elk Valley mines. Family members of workers have also spoken to The Narwhal and individuals claiming to be workers have submitted information via The Narwhal’s anonymous tip line. None of the individuals spoken to agreed to give their names for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, or the job of their family members.
Teck’s health screenings amount to a simple self-disclosure form for individuals who have been abroad in the last 14 days, exhibited any symptoms of illness or come into contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Such voluntary disclosure screenings, similar to those used at Canadian airports, have been criticized for not being strong enough.
One contractor told The Narwhal that the upgrades at Teck’s Elkview mine are considered a massively disruptive operation that, once started, cannot be halted. Another employee on site told The Narwhal a conveyor belt used to move coal to the site’s processing facilities has been dismantled to allow for the upgrades, stalling the site’s workflow. In February the site’s coal belt went offline due to mechanical failure, forcing Teck to supplement production at its other sites, according to a company sales update.
A CBC report on the Elkview lodge, published Sunday, was immediately flooded with comments from Teck employees. “The camp is filthy,” one wrote, and “shift changes are weekly,” each set of out-of-town contractors replaced by others. “This is a breeding ground for COVID.”
According to another, there “is no way to properly self distance in the camp, its shared washrooms, the buffet line, the busses, what about jamming 300 workers into a small building on site … I was on site many days when there was no water in the bathrooms / wash cars, we were always out of sanitizers and the sewers overflowed on a weekly basis.” One person on Teck’s Facebook page compared the lodge to “a cruise ship.”
The B.C. Building Trades Council, which represents 35,000 unionized construction workers, has called for the shutdown of megaprojects that house large numbers of people at remote work sites, and on Friday WorksafeBC announced it would be sending inspectors to construction sites to enforce social distancing measures. A spokesman said the inspections were a response “to concerns raised by workers” in the province.
The council encouraged workers facing unsafe conditions to report their experiences to WorksafeBC.
BC Hydro has scaled back the workforce at the Site C dam but 856 people are currently staying at the work camp, with 12 in self-isolation for flu symptoms. BC Hydro has not said if any workers staying at the camp or any local workers have been tested for COVID-19. The LNG Canada project has also cut its workforce in half.
New rules for mines, released Wednesday by Dr. Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, recommends workers be kept two metres apart where possible, both inside and outside of work hours. Additional measures include limiting in-person meetings and gatherings, regularly cleaning common areas and shared surfaces and increasing the number of hand-washing stations.
Dr. Henry is “directing all mines and smelters to take additional precautions to minimize the risks of COVID-19 transmission and illness to their employees.”
The situation at Elkview last week, a contractor says, was “more cleaning than I’ve ever seen before” — but today, with cleaning supplies running low, the regularity of the cleaning has actually decreased. A Teck employee told The Narwhal deliveries of sanitary supplies have stalled.
Sanitary supplies for the Elkview mine are delivered by Vallen. An update on the company’s website says that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, supplies such as respirators, disinfectant cleaners, soaps and hand sanitizers may not be available due to “global inventory shortages.”
Vallen was not immediately available for comment.
‘I feel sick to my stomach’
As of Wednesday there are 659 confirmed coronavirus cases in British Columbia, 41 of which are under the jurisdiction of Interior Health, a geographical area that covers the Elk Valley.
While a worker at Teck’s Fording River mine claimed on Facebook last week to have contracted the virus, Teck itself states none of its employees has tested positive as of Tuesday.
B.C.’s health authorities do not disclose the details or specific geographic location of coronavirus cases.
In the Elk Valley, as everywhere across Canada, communities share rumours and reports of local cases privately and on social media, stoking concern without any possibility of government confirmation. But as testing becomes more available, the number of cases in several Canadian provinces is surging, suggesting the virus has already spread further than official numbers show.
And with COVID-19 aggressively spreading in clusters of infection — such as those in assisted living facilities across B.C., a call centre in South Korea, even a birthday party at a Trump golf club — local Elk Valley workers, residents and politicians continue to worry Teck sites, and the Elkview Lodge in particular, is putting their communities at risk.
“Every morning I wake up and I feel sick to my stomach,” an Elkview contractor told The Narwhal. “Because I’m afraid. I am — I’m afraid. I know I’m not the only one with these concerns, and that’s what’s even more concerning.”
Two other local workers told The Narwhal they were considering sleeping in a tent or trailer at home rather than in their bed, out of fear that, if they caught the coronavirus while working at a Teck site, they would pass it on to vulnerable family members at home.
Teck’s mines “need to shut down,” one of them said.
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