Keeyask scales back construction operations in response to COVID-19 pandemic

Vale, Hudbay also taking precautions to reduce risks to their employees and communities they live in

Manitoba Hydro announced March 19 that it is scaling back work on the Keeyask generating station and suspending travel in and out of the Northern Manitoba construction camp to protect workers and residents of nearby communities from potential exposure to the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

The temporary reduction in personnel and implementation of the travel suspension will be completed by the end of the day March 21. About 600 supervisory, construction and support staff have volunteered to remain at the site.

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The changed operations are expected to last four to eight weeks.

“These are extraordinary times and we are making this decision in the interest of public health and the best interests of our customers, employees, contractors, and neighbouring communities,” said Manitoba Hydro CEO Jay Grewal. “These measures are temporary in nature and will be re-assessed based on guidance we receive from Manitoba Health officials in a few weeks.”

Any workers on site with symptoms of illness will be assessed by a nurse practitioner and isolated in a special room if they are recommended for further assessment offsite. Gym classes and intramural activities are also being suspended at the construction camp, the on-site theatre is being closed and the dining hall is only providing take-out meals. increased cleaning protocols are also being instituted.

Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton called March 18 for the federal government to take action to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Northern Manitoba workplaces such as Keeyask, which had over 1,000 workers onsite, and at mining operations

"Their health should be a top priority and we must ensure that the virus does not spread beyond the camp into northern communities,” Ashton said in a news release. "People are also concerned that employers such as Vale are unable to apply strict social distancing and other protective provisions for their workers.”

Tar Ritchie of Vale Manitoba Operations told the Thompson Citizen March 17 that the company has been taking all necessary measures at its worldwide operations since late January to prevent COVID-19 transmission among its workers, by suspending non-essential business trips and creating a technical crisis committee and an executive committee to manage actions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

All Vale employees returning from international travel are instructed to contact the company’s health department or appropriate health authorities by telephone before returning to activities, even if they are not showing any symptoms of the virus,” Ritchie wrote in an email. “A specific procedure for COVID 19 was created to deal with the pandemic properly. This procedure establishes specific severity levels and well-defined actions.”

The company’s Voisey’s Bay operation in Newfoundland began preparations to go on care and maintenance March 16, though there were no employees there or at any of Vale’s other worldwide operations with COVID-19.

Given the unique fly-in and fly-out nature scenario at Voisey’s Bay and the difficulty that presents with social distancing, we have taken this decision as a precaution to protect the well-being of the Innu and Nunatsiavut communities in Labrador,” said a memo to employees from Vale’s North Atlantic chief operating officer Dino Otranto. “More than 400 people in our workforce at Voisey’s Bay are Indigenous, and we want to ensure our operations do not act as a catalyst to inadvertently introduce the virus in these remote and vulnerable communities, where concern has been expressed about access to adequate healthcare services and overcrowding in homes.”

Hudbay told Manitoba employees March 19 that it is promoting social distancing, hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, self-monitoring for illness symptoms and employees staying home when feeling sick. Technology is being used to reduce face-to-face meetings and the number of people together in cages in the mines has been reduced. Employees who travel to Hudbay operations from outside the province are subject to a screening process to ensure that only those who are fit for work are allowed to travel and non-essential business travel has been suspended. The Snow Lake Camp where many Lalor Mine employees live is being cleaned more and emergency measures in case of sickness have been instituted. Non-essential facilities such as the gym have also been closed.

"At this point, Manitoba remains a low-risk jurisdiction with no known cases of COVID-19 in Northern Manitoba,” Hudbay said in a March 20 news release. 

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