Mercer Celgar management is trying to ease public fears over the influx of workers headed to Castlegar for the pulp mill’s maintenance shutdown next month.
Celgar’s annual shutdown is scheduled for March 6 to 26, and the company says about 500 workers will be needed to complete the required maintenance work. The mill will be spending $20 million over 20 days.
Celgar has been operating as an essential service since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in order to remain open, pulp mills in B.C. are legally required by Technical Safety BC to routinely complete planned and extensive safety inspections plus cleaning and maintenance of boilers, pressure vessels and safety-critical equipment every 18 months.
Members of the company’s management team met with Castlegar city council on Feb. 16 to explain their plans and answer questions. Most of council’s questions centred on how the company was going to keep the community safe from a potential COVID outbreak brought in by outside workers.
As of the middle of February, it had been five weeks since a positive COVID case was diagnosed in the Castlegar area.
The mill has already been operating using an extensive COVID-19 safety plan for its 418 employees and has only had one positive case since the start of the pandemic. That plan has now been expanded to include the operations and people necessary to complete the shutdown projects.
The mill’s director of business excellence Lori Ketchuk told council the work planned for the shutdown had been pared down to only the items that were absolutely necessary.
They have also made an effort to use local contractors wherever possible including Chinook Scaffolding, Midwest Mechanical, Impact Equipment, Striker, Pacific Rim Installations, Venture Mechanical and West Kootenay Cleaners.
Celgar’s managing director, Bill MacPherson, said the contractors hired for the shutdown are long-term partners with the mill that have developed trust with the company.
“They understand the importance of maintaining that relationship,” said MacPherson. “We wouldn’t, for example, bring a contractor in to do this digester overlay that we hadn’t already worked with for many, many years.
“We have confidence they are going to do all the things they need to do in our community because they are part of our community.”
The company does not have exact numbers at this point, but they expect at least half of the extra workers (250) will be from the West Kootenay area and a majority of the remaining workers will come from within B.C. Throughout the shutdown, the number of extra workers on site will fluctuate, peaking at 500.
Two specialized workers from the United States and one from Sweden will be arriving for inspection services and to oversee the installation of a new piece of equipment. In addition, 10 highly specialized welders from the U.S. will be arriving to perform welding in the mill’s digester. The person arriving from Sweden will be required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Canada. However, those arriving from the U.S. as essential workers may not be required to quarantine.
“Mercer Celgar employees, contractors and visitors are expected and encouraged to follow all travel and safety regulations laid out by the provincial health officer while both inside and outside of the workplace,” said Ketchuk
All contractors are required to sign a waiver stating they will follow Celgar’s COVID safety plan.
As for community fears regarding these workers roaming around the West Kootenay’s stores and restaurants, safety manager Jeff Fish said that all restaurants, hotels, etc. are required by WorksafeBC and the province to have their own COVID safety plans and that those plans should be sufficient to mitigate exposures.
“We only have so much control,” said Fish. “We have to rely on the contractors to be professional and we have to rely on the businesses within our community to uphold the laws and regulations that they are held to as well.”
With contractors working 12-to-16 hour shifts, the company expects that interactions between workers and the community will actually be minimal, limited mainly to finding food and accommodations.
Fish also pointed out that pulp mills across the province have been running maintenance shuts downs during the pandemic and that lessons learned at other mills have been incorporated in the Celgar plan.
In a follow up interview with Castlegar News, MacPherson said, “I think we will be successful and effective. I think we understand the risks and I think we are doing everything we can to mitigate them. We are spending lots of time, including right up to the minute we shut down, to figure out if there is more we can do to keep our whole site safe and healthy.”
Workers are required to complete a daily self-assessment. The company is using an app for the assessments in order to further limit personal contact between employees.
On the advice of the company’s medical director, a Lower Mainland physician, temperature checks will not be used. He advised they can actually increase risk as they require employees to be in close contact with each other and can give both false positives and negatives, giving some people a faulty idea that they are not carrying the illness.
On-site precautions include masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, extra sanitization and staggering of shifts and breaks.
Any employee who is suspected of having COVID-19 will be immediately removed from the work site and quarantined. Cleaning and sanitizing of any areas the person has been in will then be conducted. Close contacts of the suspected case will be notified. Employees will continue to be paid while they await test results in order to discourage anyone from trying to work while sick.
Rapid testing will not be used. MacPherson said they don’t see the tests as useful at this point since anyone with symptoms will be quarantined and undergo testing through Interior Health. He also has concerns over the number of false results rapid tests produce.
Teams of auditors will be on site to ensure protocols are being followed.
MacPherson says both he and the company have a vested interest in ensuring COVID-19 does not spread in the community.
“I live here, my family lives here, we do business here,” he said.
“I think we have a good plan.”