Staff at a prison in Maple Ridge refused to work in what they considered unsafe conditions caused by a COVID-19 outbreak.
Three workers at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge refused to work on Jan. 22, triggering a WorkSafe BC investigation. Three more workers also exercised their right to refuse unsafe work.
The BC Corrections officers wanted six infected inmates placed in their own living unit.
The union representing the BC Corrections officers is not happy with WorkSafe BC not finding in their favour. BCGEU president Stephanie Smith urged Corrections to “go above and beyond,” to protect workers from the virus.
“It doesn’t just keep workers safe, it keeps inmates safe, and it keeps communities safe,” she said.
The union said the outbreak appears to be getting worse. When the WorkSafe report was filed on Jan. 23, it recorded six inmates with confirmed cases of COVID-19. On Jan. 27 when Fraser Health declared an outbreak at the prison, there were nine inmates and two staff members who had tested positive.
The workers expressed concerns that six out of 14 inmates in a living unit had tested positive, but the infected inmates had not been isolated.
They also asked for plexiglass on a desk inside the ward, and a reduction in the number of inmates allowed in open areas, outside cells, from five to just one.
They also expressed concerns about carrying the infection home.
The employer said the decision to keep the inmates in the unit together was based on advice from Fraser Health.
The WorkSafe investigation did not find an undue hazard created with five inmates allowed in open areas.
Of the concern about carrying the infection home, the WorkSafe report said “The Workers Compensation Act does not have provisions to address exposure to persons that are not workers. As such, the concern cannot be evaluated during this investigation.”
In its overall determination, the report did not identify an undue safety hazard.
“I was disappointed, obviously, as were our members,” said Smith.
Union members exercising their right to refuse unsafe work is not undertaken lightly, she said, and Corrections officers conduct risk assessments daily, as part of their job, and their refusal to work should be a “loud klaxon call.”
Smith noted there are new, more transmissible varietals of COVID-19 now circulating, and the government should take all possible measures to keep its workers safe.
“We have said to employers: ‘We want you to overreact. We want you to do more than the bare minimum.’”
A statement from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said upon receiving concerns from staff about their health and safety following an outbreak at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre (FRCC), BC Corrections worked closely with the local Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, the BCGEU, and health partners to review the COVID-19 protocols in place.
Both the employer and union requested WorkSafeBC attend the worksite, it conducted an investigation that same day and found the protocols to be effective in mitigating any risks to worker safety.
From the onset of the pandemic, the ministry said, BC Corrections has implemented protocols rooted in health best practices to ensure the safety of staff and those in custody. This includes separating individuals upon admission to custody for 14-days or longer, separating anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 while in custody, the use of PPE by staff, and other important health and safety measures.