Over this past weekend, we suffered our darkest hour of the pandemic as a company and a community. A gentleman who worked for us in our Western Industrial group died Saturday in a northern Alberta hospital from COVID-19 complications. He had spent nearly one month in the intensive care unit after becoming ill during a shutdown project that B&M was performing at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL)’s Horizon mine and bitumen extraction site in Fort Mackay. I am not in the habit of broadcasting news this tragic. But the circumstances of this pandemic remain extraordinary and I simply felt compelled to say something to acknowledge this terrible loss.
I have chosen not to share the individual’s name. That seems too personal. I didn’t know him but he was well-known within our Alberta industrial team. As a friend. A colleague. A mentor. A father. He was a pipefitter by trade. Born and raised in Dryden, Ontario. A general foreman who had worked other shutdowns for us. He was 64, nearing the end of a career on sites such as Horizon.
B&M has worked frequently for CNRL over the past decade and we were contracted to perform a package of mechanical work during the 2021 spring shutdown that began in earnest in early April. While our supervisors and field leaders began initial preparations on site earlier in the winter, the vast majority of our workforce arrived in late March with a peak of about 250 people during the middle of April. Our crew was a small part of the 4500 contracted trades working the shutdown and performing annual maintenance and refurbishment activities.
People travel from far and wide to work these shutdowns. All over Alberta and western Canada. Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Nearly all of them are lodged for the duration of their work in camp accommodation facilities on the Horizon property. When you consider CNRL’s full-time operating staff, the Horizon population swells to nearly 8000 each April. The size of a small town. Most people would’ve been unvaccinated when they arrived at site given the stage of Canada’s vaccine rollout at that time.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus tore through Horizon during the past seven weeks, driven by the variants that have created a precipitous spike in Alberta’s third wave. There have been more than 1100 confirmed COVID-19 infections among site workers since April 1 making Horizon the worst workplace outbreak in sheer magnitude in Canada since the pandemic began. This is spite of rigorous safety protocols, a full mask mandate, and active rapid testing on all workers to drive isolations and tracing. CNRL worked with Alberta Health Services to set up a vaccination clinic onsite in late April but by then it was simply too late. The virus simply overwhelmed the defenses and too many people were already infected.
Our B&M site crew was not spared. We experienced two positives in March and one in the first half of April which were unfortunate but did not seem out of the ordinary. But the tide began to change on April 17 with three positives and a growing number of isolations. By May 5, we had 23 active cases and 4 people in hospital, many of whom tested positive before the arrival of COVID-19 symptoms. This was a pattern occurring throughout the entire shutdown workforce. Of all the cases identified on site by CNRL’s rapid antigen testing, 80% were asymptomatic. So many people were unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.
We are fortunate to be significantly demobilized from site now. In all, we have experienced 90 isolations and over 50 infections during the course of our work. When all hell broke loose, our site people pulled together to support one another. Checking in regularly on the unwell, many of whom were in isolation accommodations on site. Ensuring the sickest were properly attended to, advocated for, and escalated responsibly. All the while, judiciously fulfilling the obligations of the work at hand. Our team including our off-site operational and safety leaders did an exemplary job in the worst of situations. In spite of all these efforts, we are paying a heavy price.
It is difficult to process the fact that we experienced our worst incidence of internal COVID cases in the 14th month of this pandemic. B&M had 42 active COVID-19 cases on May 5 including the 23 at Horizon. Nearly double what we had experienced during the worst periods since this coronavirus first reared its ugly head. Fortunately our active total has diminished to 19 in the past two weeks but people in our company continue to be regularly infected and two of our Horizon employees remain in hospital.
We still have miles to go and that realization is painful and demoralizing. After all this time, I had begun to believe that B&M would be one of the lucky ones and that COVID-19 wouldn’t break through and hurt our people quite to the extent that others had suffered. I was wrong. We now bear all the scars and my heart aches for those of you who lost a colleague, a friend and a loved one.
Good health is a gift that must be treasured and carefully guarded. Vaccines are our best defense to the illness, suffering, anguish and death that COVID-19 has wrought upon our industrial group and the many others at Horizon. I implore you to get the jab and take the initiative to protect yourself.