Smelter workers in Kitimat begin health and safety petition against Rio Tinto

KITIMAT, B.C. – Workers at Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C., say the company is putting health and safety at risk in the drive to get a newly modernized facility up and running.

Unifor Local 2301 has circulated a petition demanding Rio Tinto address unacceptable working conditions for 900 workers at the smelter about 650 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

Workplace contaminants have been found in bathrooms, drinking water facilities and eating areas, said union local president Sean O’Driscoll.

“Our members have quite frankly gotten really frustrated with the lack of amenities, with a number of health and safety issues, with the amount of mandatory overtime people are being made to work,” he said.

Employees are forced to work 12-hour shifts, up to 15 in a row, O’Driscoll said.

He said that contributes to fatigue and raises the possibility that a worker could be injured or killed.

Rio Tinto spokesman Kevin Dobbin said mandatory overtime will be needed, possibly until the fall, to get the smelter into a “steady state” following its $4.8-billion modernization.

“There are some areas we are asking workers to have mandatory overtime to help ensure the plant gets up and running, and to its steady state,” he said, adding overtime hours are expected to be cut back over the summer.

Dobbin said the company was “looking at” putting eight new crew rooms closer to the main work area, where more than 30 drinking locations are now located, adding temporary washrooms are in place while permanent ones are being installed.

Rio Tinto’s first quarter report noted Kitimat completed its ramp-up to an annualized rate of 420,000 tonnes last month. (CFTK)