Oil-Sands Workers Brace for ‘Hellish’ Outbreak in Remote Camps

As if the market crash threating their jobs wasn’t stressful enough, workers in Canada’s oil-sands are bracing for the coronavirus to upend life in the remote camps where they’re lodged.

One suspected case among them is already haunting roughnecks who fly in from across Canada and live for weeks on end in barracks-like facilities built in the boreal forests and marshes of northern Alberta, which houses the world’s third-largest crude reserve.Civeo Corp., a Houston-based company that provides lodging for workers in the Fort McMurray area near oil-sands mines, on Friday said one of its guests “has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, has been tested and we are awaiting results.”

A widespread infection afflicting a workforce that grapples with long hours of physical labor in punishing cold would also be a blow to producers already reeling from the fallout of the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It would disrupt what’s set to be the industry’s heaviest maintenance season in five years. Thousands of temporary workers will be needed as producers likeSuncor Energy Inc. andCanadian Natural Resources Ltd. shut equipment for repairs.

Anxieties already are running high among workers, who often have their own rooms but share restrooms and cafeterias, providing many opportunities for the virus to go around.

“Most of the discussions in the lunchroom are based on what’s going on with the virus, what’s going on medically, what’s going on financially, how bad are the markets down?” said a 43-year-old who lives in Albian Village Camp, which houses workers for a Canadian Natural oil-sands mine. He asked not to be named for fear of losing work at the site. “Are we going to get stuck here? Are there going to be flights home? Will we have jobs to come back to?”

Albian Village is adding hand-sanitizing stations, prepackaging workers’ food instead of letting them serve themselves buffet-style, and spacing out the cafeteria tables, the worker there said.

ESS Support Services Worldwide, which runs that camp, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment. Canadian Natural said in an e-mailed statement that it has implemented precautionary measures across its camps and will continue to strengthen them at the advice of public health officials.

In Civeo’s camp, where the suspected case was reported, anyone who has traveled internationally won’t be allowed in the facilities for 14 days after a return, sanitizing measures are being enhance and screening and quarantining procedures are being implemented.

Workers also are afraid that if they’re infected, they’d face weeks quarantined in their rooms, which the worker estimates are only around 200 square feet, or roughly 20 square meters.

“These rooms are pretty small,” he said. “It’s not like being at home. If you get quarantined here, it would be pretty hellish.”

Workers have also watched warily as governments have implemented increasingly stringent travel restrictions, threatening their ability to get home. The Albian worker would be able to drive 14 hours to his home in British Columbia in the event of a total shutdown of Canada’s air transportation, but his coworkers who live 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away in Canada’s Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia wouldn’t be so lucky.

According to a 2018 census, there were 74 temporary workers’ dwellings in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the sprawling northern Alberta region that houses the oil sands deposits. The region’s so-called shadow population of temporary residents who live outside of the municipality but who are employed in the region for at least 30 days a year was 33,000, according to that census.

Suncor, Canada’s largest integrated oil company, is working with the companies that run its camps on a variety of safety measures, said Erin Rees, a company spokeswoman. Camps are conducing more frequent and deeper cleaning of high touch-point areas like door handles, posting security outside of cafeterias to make sure everyone uses hand sanitizer before entering and switching cafeterias from self-serve to full service style so that fewer people come into contact with the food, she said.

While the worker in Albian Village said the camp operators are doing everything they reasonably can to protect workers, they might ultimately be fighting a losing battle.

“If it’s coming in, it’s coming in,” he said. “There’s no stopping it once it’s here.”

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