Anxious Workers at Fossil Man Camps Brace for ‘Hellish’ COVID-19 Outbreak
Anxious tar sands/oil sands workers are bracing for a “hellish” outbreak of COVID-19 in the man camps surrounding tar sands/oil sands, coal, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) megaprojects in Alberta and British Columbia, with one major LNG developer cutting its onsite staff but Alberta fossils planning to import thousands of temporary workers for their heaviest maintenance season in five years.
“Anxieties already are running high among workers, who often have their own rooms but share restrooms and cafeterias, providing many opportunities for the virus to go around,” reports Bloomberg News, in a post published by fossil industry newsletter JWN Energy. Already, one “guest”, as man camp occupants are euphemistically called, has been sent to hospital with a suspected case of COVID-19, The Canadian Press writes.
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The suspected case “is already haunting roughnecks who fly in from across Canada and live for weeks on end in barracks-like facilities built in the boreal forests and marshes of northern Alberta, which houses the world’s third-largest crude reserve,” Bloomberg adds. “A widespread infection afflicting a work force that grapples with long hours of physical labour in punishing cold would also be a blow to producers already reeling from the fallout of the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.”
And it comes at a time when “thousands of temporary workers will be needed as producers like Suncor Energy Inc. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) shut equipment for repairs.”
Last Friday, Houston-based Civeo Corporation said the worker near Fort McMurray “had no symptoms when he or she checked into the Borealis Lodge, a 1,500-room complex 22 kilometres north of the city, on Wednesday evening, but felt ill the next morning,” CP writes. “It says an ambulance took the guest to hospital in Fort McMurray for medical treatment and evaluation, adding results of the tests have not yet been received.”
After that, the company “implemented its quarantine and isolation protocol, which includes closing the individual’s room and completing a deep sanitization for all areas in which the individual was present or assumed present, as well as letting other guests know about the situation.”
None of which was likely to calm anyone’s nerves.
“Most of the discussions in the lunchroom are based on what’s going on with the virus, what’s going on medically, what’s going on financially, how bad are the markets down?” said one worker at the Albian Village man camp near Fort McKay, one of 74 in the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which serves a CNRL tar sands/oil sands mine. He declined to be identified for fear of losing his job. “Are we going to get stuck here? Are there going to be flights home? Will we have jobs to come back to?”
While he expressed confidence that camp operators are doing everything they can, “if it’s coming in, it’s coming in,” he told Bloomberg. “There’s no stopping it once it’s here.”
Tar sands/oil sands workers “have also watched warily as governments have implemented increasingly stringent travel restrictions, threatening their ability to get home,” the news agency adds. “The Albian worker would be able to drive 14 hours to his home in British Columbia in the event of a total shutdown of Canada’s air transportation, but his co-workers who live 5,000 kilometres away in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia wouldn’t be so lucky.”
And at about 20 square metres, “these rooms are pretty small,” added a worker at the Borealis camp. “It’s not like being at home. If you get quarantined here, it would be pretty hellish.”
The news comes less than two weeks after the Globe and Mail said man camp operators were trying to prevent coronavirus outbreaks, with assistant professor Jason Kindrachuk, Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, warning the camps could fuel the spread of the disease if workers don’t realize they’re infected. “People, if they go home, will potentially have contact with” more vulnerable friends and family, including seniors or people with underlying conditions like hypertension and diabetes, he said. “We have to try to simply mitigate spread.”
The story talked about Alberta fossils and man camp operators stepping up routine cleaning schedules and health hotlines, and cited a logistics company developing software to flag people who might be at risk of carrying the virus before they boarded charter flights. But reporting on March 12, the Globe said transportation-related risks “have already emerged. On Tuesday, oil sands workers headed to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon project did not get off the plane when they landed in northern Alberta because a member of the airline’s crew received confirmation, after operating the flight, that he or she had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. The plane, operated by Canadian North, returned to Edmonton with the passengers.”
The response has been a bit more proactive elsewhere, with LNG Canada announcing March 18—a week after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic—that it was cutting its staff by half and flying 750 people home “out of an abundance of caution”. A spokesperson said the company could further reduce its work force to “critical levels” if necessary.
“We’re concerned, like anyone, but it’s not a panic situation,” Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth told CBC the day before the cuts. “Everyone is doing their best to make things as smooth as possible and hope for the best. But it can change in minutes.”
On Sunday, doctors and mayors in the East Kootenays region of B.C. expressed concern that a 450-person man camp near Elkford, which serves four Teck Resources coal mines near the Alberta border, could spread the virus through the region. “Sparwood Mayor David Wilks, along with the mayors of Fernie and Elkford, say the transient nature of the workers at the camp poses the biggest threat of spreading the novel coronavirus,” CBC reports. “Wilks added officials recognize the economic importance of Teck facilities in the valley, but the risk of spreading COVID-19 outweighs those benefits.”
Teck said the camp was operating at 70% capacity, adding that it hadn’t identified any COVID-19 cases at any of its facilities.