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Steelworkers union boss concerned over COVID outbreak, worker safety

Tenaris not mandating vaccinations, company official says
160902-TENARISALGOMATUBESEXTERIOR-DT
Darren Taylor/SooToday

“I’m definitely concerned for our members.”

That from Cody Alexander, United Steelworkers Local 9548 president, representing Tenaris Algoma Tubes workers, speaking to SooToday Friday.

Tenaris confirmed Wednesday that seven of its employees at Tenaris Algoma Tubes have tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s not a good situation there. As far as we’re concerned in the union, it’s not under control,” Alexander said, adding he is especially concerned for new hires.

“Right now they’re doing rapid testing, which isn’t supposed to be used for an outbreak. There’s no policy or procedure in place so we put in a grievance today on that...ultimately the company has to step up and put in a reasonable policy and make sure everybody’s trained on it,” Alexander said.

“We should be focusing on safety in the mill and controlling the virus at the workstations...what we recommended today to the company is that they put a team together, that their sole focus is to go around the mill, reinforcing our masking policies, social distancing policies and ensuring that we’re provided all the supplies people need for proper housekeeping, to make sure we don’t contract the virus (and transmit it) to the next crew.”

Alexander said the union’s understanding is that 64 per cent of the tube mill’s workers are fully vaccinated (based on voluntary reporting of vaccination status).

“We think that if they incentivized it we’d get more reporting (but) I think that we’re close to the provincial standard.” 

“I’m not going to take the position on whether a guy should get vaccinated or not. I support it...what I’d like to see is Tenaris decide if they're going to mandate this or not so at least we’d have a standard in the workplace. The important thing for us is providing a safe workplace and the vaccine would go in conjunction with that,” Alexander said. 

“We have a vaccine mandate for our union meetings. To enter our district office you have to be double vaxxed. As steelworkers we support that 100 per cent but we need Tenaris to draft a policy on it so we can read that and work with them to make sure that it fits the Charter and our human rights. Being double vaxxed increases our ability to keep people safe during an outbreak.”

“Tenaris is not mandating vaccinations but has and will continue to encourage its employee base to get vaccinated – the company hosted two vaccination clinics at the facility, as it believes it’s a path to return to normalcy and prevent serious illness stemming from contagion,” replied Carolina Mendoza, Tenaris spokesperson in an email.

Tenaris, Mendoza said, is reinforcing the safety measures it has in place.

“Supervisors (are) performing frequent inspections to ensure protocols are being upheld.”

“Since the onset of the pandemic, Tenaris has implemented comprehensive protocols across its facilities in Canada, and worldwide - temperature checks, face masks, frequent sanitation of workspaces, distancing markers and remote working. The company has been part of the Provincial Antigen Screening Program since February and was among the first employers in Sault Ste. Marie to offer rapid testing of its employees to reduce risks and limit the virus’ spread.”

“The Company is expanding the scope of its Rapid Testing program to include mandatory testing for all individuals,” Mendoza said.

“We remain in constant communication with APH, reviewing protocols and heeding guidance on protective actions. APH has performed contact tracing and those identified as close contacts, and who have a positive PCR, are isolating.”

“In addition, Tenaris is asking that all employees who can work remotely do so as an added precaution,” Mendoza said.

The concern among United Steelworkers Local 9548 comes at the same time as Algoma Public Health (APH) issued a release Friday warning Sault and Algoma residents to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.

The district is experiencing a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases, including 29 new cases in the Sault Ste. Marie area reported Friday and bringing the number of active cases in the region to 113  - with seven hospitalizations.

"This rapid surge of COVID-19 spread is the highest Algoma has ever seen, and is still rising, " said Dr. Jennifer Loo, APH medical officer of health in Friday’s APH release.

The surge comes despite Loo having informed the APH board, at its most recent monthly meeting held Oct. 27, that 85 per cent of all people eligible (to receive the vaccine) in the Sault and Algoma district have received two doses of the vaccine.

"With the (Christmas) holiday season just over six weeks away, now is the time to cut back on unnecessary risks and exposures, to stop uncontrolled transmission, and avoid the need for additional restrictions," Loo said Friday.  

“APH is closely monitoring COVID-19 activity in all Algoma communities at this time, to determine whether additional local measures are needed to curb COVID-19 transmission in the coming days and weeks,” the release states.

APH is stating residents should “pause or postpone non-essential gatherings until community transmission is lower.”  

The Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce issued a release of its own Friday, stating “anyone who is sick, even with mild symptoms, must stay home and isolate away from others - regardless of whether you have received the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The Chamber also is urging people to “cut back on unnecessary activities where you have unmasked, face-to-face close contact with people you don't live with,” and to get vaccinated.

“It has been an enormously challenging time for our business community and our hope is that (these actions) will help prevent the return of mandatory closures or other stringent restrictions... particularly in the lead up to the (Christmas) holidays,” the Chamber said. 

The surge in COVID cases in the Sault and Algoma is accompanied by surges in northeastern Ontario and the rest of the province.

On Monday, provincial capacity limits were set to be lifted in such places as restaurants, bars and wedding receptions, but the Ontario government announced this week that action will be delayed, a review period to start Monday and last for 28 days.