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Health authorities to identify workplaces with significant COVID-19 outbreaks

Posted: January 5, 2021

(January 4, 2021)

By: Sara Mojtehedzadeh, St. Catharines Standard

Toronto health authorities will begin naming employers with significant COVID-19 outbreaks, following long-standing concerns about the lack of public reporting on essential workplaces struck by the virus.

After months of demands from worker advocates, as well as the city’s own board of health, details on outbreaks in 11 sectors — many of them known for precarious, low-wage jobs — will now be released weekly to the public.

The data will also identify specific workplaces with large or sustained outbreaks in a bid for greater “transparency and public accountability,” Mayor John Tory said at a Monday media briefing.

“This is about providing as much protection as possible to all of the hard-working people who are still going into work in person, to provide for all the rest of us essential goods and services,” he said.

The Star has previously reported on the lack of uniformity across public health units in releasing details about workplace outbreaks, which have resulted in significant numbers of workers falling ill since the start of the pandemic.

A recent report from the Ontario Health Coalition found workplace outbreaks now “far outpace the spread in the general public.” Manufacturing had the largest increase in cases, with a 77 per cent spike between mid-November and early December — compared to 22 per cent in the general population.

More than 8,600 workers have contracted COVID-19 on the job since March, according to statistics from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, with workers in health care, agriculture and food processing registering the highest number of cases.

But many health units still do not name employers with large-scale outbreaks, citing privacy concerns. As previously revealed by the Star, one outbreak at Toronto bakery chain FGF Brands that saw 184 workers test positive for the virus was not reported publicly by health authorities.

The province’s COVID-19 data shows the number of workplace outbreaks linked to farms, retail, health care and food processing — but not other sectors.

In September, the Toronto board of health unanimously passed a motion calling on the city’s medical officer to release detailed information about workplace outbreaks. On Monday, board chair Joe Cressy said the new public reporting was part of “enhanced measures needed to keep workers safe.”

“In a pandemic, information is power. Information can also provoke change,” he said.

“In many ways, the story of this pandemic is also a story of work,” he added. “It’s those heroes, those essential front-line workers, who have often been at the greatest risk.”

There are currently more than 250 active workplace outbreaks across the province, according to the latest provincial data — the second-highest source behind care settings. There are currently 16 active workplace outbreaks in Toronto, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, said Monday.

Three employers with outbreaks that “pose a significant public health risk” are now named on the city’s website: skin care manufacturer DECIEM, meat processor Sofina Foods and circuit board manufacturer TTM Technologies. The new cumulative data shows warehouses, manufacturing and distribution companies have had the largest number of outbreaks at 132, followed by bars and nightclubs with 41. Food processors have seen 31 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic, and the retail sector has registered 24.

Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre said she welcomed greater transparency — but said stronger workplace protections at the provincial level are essential to containing the virus.

“Hiding where these outbreaks are happening is not helping anyone,” she said.

“The city is trying to do the best it can under limited powers, but it points to the role of the provincial government to move forward with enforcement that has teeth.”

The head of the food and beverage processing industry’s main trade association admitted there were mistakes during the early part of the pandemic which led to outbreaks at some processing plants.

“We were caught off-guard by the first wave,” said Norm Beal, CEO of Food and Beverage Ontario.

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