Workers have told Guardian Australia that face masks were only provided at the plant on Thursday 30 April. The first worker was diagnosed on 24 April, and the Victorian Department of Health said there were indications of a cluster at the meatworks by 26 April when a second worker tested positive.
In the weeks since, the outbreak has ballooned to 88 cases, and on Wednesday, Worksafe confirmed it was investigating the spread of Covid-19 at the site.
“WorkSafe is working with the Department of Health and Human Service to develop appropriate industry guidance for managing and controlling coronavirus in the workplace and is also working with DHHS to manage incidents of Covid-19 where they occur in a workplace.”
It’s understood part of the investigation includes whether workers were provided appropriate personal protective equipment, as well as checks on measures to ensure workers maintained social distancing wherever possible and had access to hygiene products, such as hand sanitiser.
A spokeswoman for Cedar Meats’ general manager Tony Kairouz said the company “welcomed” the investigation. “We will cooperate fully with Worksafe,” she said.
Cedar Meats workers were not given the option to stay home from work until Wednesday 29 April. Masks were only provided to workers who stayed on after four cases were identified and the plant was ordered to close. Even then not all workers were required to wear the masks.
“As soon as they found out about the extra cases, they had boxes of face masks there, if you wanted to wear one, you know, put one on,” said a worker from the factory’s slaughter floor. “Our area gets pretty warm because we have a lot of sterilisers and hot water running, so it’s not too comfortable to be wearing one all the time.”
A spokeswoman for Cedar Meats confirmed that the masks were only mandatory in the boning room, where the infection began, and not for all workers.
“Staff were provided with face masks on the Thursday and the Friday. We had minimal staff working to process the remaining product, with the view to close down as soon as we possibly could.”
About 260 workers were at the factory on Friday 1 May, a week after the first worker was diagnosed. That day, all 350 staff were asked to come into the factory to receive information relating to the outbreak and learn where they should go for testing.
The spokeswoman said this was not mandatory and the 260 staff at work attended meetings inside due to weather. She said the meetings ranged from groups of 15 to 70 and were kept to under 15 minutes.
The spokeswoman noted in each meeting “staff were asked to stand apart” and “spread out”, but, a worker told Guardian Australia they were not physically distancing and were “standing and sitting next to each other”.
She said some of the workers who were not working travelled to the factory, received the information at the gate and left, but she said they could not provide an exact number.
The Victorian government has defended its handling and containment of the Cedar Meats outbreak, but this week faced intense questioning during a parliamentary inquiry into the state’s Covid-19 response. The Victorian health minister, Jenny Mikakos, was asked why Cedar Meats was not contacted directly by the department when a worker was diagnosed on 24 April.
She said the infected worker had nominated Labour Solutions Australia, a labour-hire firm, not Cedar Meats, as his employer. Labour Solutions went on to contact the factory on 24 April, but a spokeswoman for Cedar Meats said the employee taking the call did not consider it to be an “official” notification.
Mikakos said the department contacted Cedar Meats directly after the second employee listed it as their employer on 26 April.
“The facility is closed because it’s the Anzac Day weekend, and so the department has contacted Cedar Meats the next morning, on Monday the 27th of April … to begin that investigation about a potential cluster, because they then made the connection of two workers on the 24th and the 26th being individuals both working at the meatworks.”
Nationals MP Danny O’Brien asked Victorias chief health officer, Brett Sutton, why further enquiries were not made.
“Wouldn’t you think the first question would be, OK it’s a labour hire firm, where do you actually work?”
Sutton replied: “No. We were given the name of his employer, who we followed up with.”
Sutton defended not immediately isolating all workers in the Cedar Meats boning room. He said the man diagnosed on 24 April did not list any coworkers in the abattoir boning rooms as “close contacts”.
“That individual was spoken to. He identified working separately from others in the boning room on a machine that was separate to his colleagues.”
Members of the opposition sitting on the public accounts and estimates committee who conducted the inquiry expressed scepticism.
“I don’t know whether you’ve been in a boning room. I’ve got the largest one in Victoria, I think, in my electorate. I’m a regular visitor,” said Richard Riordan, the Liberal MP for Polwarth. “You cannot be in a boning room by yourself. It is a room of up to, you know, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 people at very close quarters. We know, internationally, boning rooms and meat processing plants have been problematic.”
On Tuesday, the Victorian opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, said one of his ministers had been approached by someone associated with Cedar Meats. “We know that one of our MPs was approached by an intermediary of Cedar Meats encouraging us not to name the company,” he said.
During the parliamentary inquiry the premier, Daniel Andrews, was asked if he knew of any Labor MPs being approached by Cedar Meats for similar reasons.
“So no one has advised you at all, none of your MPs received a text or advice?” asked Riordan.
Andrews replied: “I have had no such advice. None whatsoever.”
The spokeswoman for Cedar Meats also denied the claims.
“In terms of text messages referred to yesterday, Cedar Meats did not contact any MPs at any time and ask for it not to be named as the abattoir with the Covid-19 outbreak. This is false information. Cedar Meats did not ask an intermediary to contact MPs and ask for it not to be named as the abattoir at any time,” she said.
In the early days of the outbreak, the government refused to name Cedar Meats for privacy reasons. The company outed itself as the site of the outbreak on 4 May.
Source: The Guardian