Concerns arise over lack of regulation for farm worker safety

A leaked draft of a farm safety report is drawing new attention to a black hole in Alberta's labour legislation: Farm workers on traditional farms continue to be the only labour group in the province to be excluded from the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), to serious repercussions.

The Farm Safety Advisory Council was set up two years ago to review existing health and safety laws for farm workers, and to determine whether changes are necessary. The council's report is not public, and is still going through the government approval process. The leaked draft, however, recommended that farm workers remain exempt from health and safety laws. The industry should self-regulate, the report allegedly said.

"Basically (farm workers) have nothing. They're not covered under Workers Compensation legislation. They're not covered under occupational health and safety legislation," said Randy Corbett from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE). "If there's an accident on the farm, and that's right up to and including fatalities, Occupational Health and Safety won't investigate them because they're excluded from the legislation."

Only in Alberta, Workers Compensation Board (WCB) coverage is completely voluntary for traditional farm workers. Individual farm owners can choose to purchase it for their employees, or not. The AUPE represents nearly 80,000 working Albertans, none of them farm workers.

Between 1983 and 1993, there were 1,365 known deaths on Canadian farms, according to AUPE. Estimates suggest that farmers are five times more likely to be killed through occupation-related accidents than workers in all other industries.

Because of the lack of regulation, the government is relying on "education and awareness" to protect farm workers, according to David Hennig from Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. The government recognizes that health and safety protection should be improved, and hired the advisory council to come up with recommendations.

The council, however, seems to consist predominately of big industry and government representatives.

The lack of health and safety regulation dates back to the 1950s, when most farms were small and family-owned, and the general consensus was not to interfere in the affairs of family farms.

Indeed today, on small acreages, health and safety issues remain minor. Reuben Loewen, farm owner in Fort St. John and president of Peace Region Forage Seed Association, gets all the work done within the family on his 1000-acre plot, and can't remember ever having a serious incident in his 40 years of work.

Heather Kerschbaumer's seed cleaning plant in Fairview, Golden Acre Seeds, falls under federal jurisdiction and as such has mandatory WCB coverage. But even so, in the more than 20 years of the farm's operations, the worst incident Kerschbaumer can recall among her seven or so staff is a sprained ankle.

In the experience of Kenda Lubeck, farm safety co-ordinator for Alberta Agriculture, small farm owners are generally receptive to improving health and safety conditions for workers.

But there is a difference between a small family farm and a commercial industrial operation. The large farms use heavy-duty equipment, and more of it. "When you get hit with them, you break," said Corbett. The three main risk factors for farm workers are all machine-related, and are the same across Grande Prairie, the province, and Canada: Runovers, rollovers, and entanglements.

Most farms in Alberta are large operations, with Peace Country farms being particularly big. Nationwide, the average farm size is 778 acres, but it is 1130 acres in the Peace, according to the 2011 Census of Agriculture. Province-wide in 2010, the 4,454 largest farms represented only 10% of all farms, but 71% of total revenue. The number of farms in Alberta with $500,000 or more in 2010 revenue increased by 18% from 2006 to 2011 figures, and those with less than $500,000 decreased by 15%.

Specific commercial agribusiness is covered by the Occupat ional Health and Safety Act, including greenhouse, mushroom, sod and nursery farming. But this does not include grain and canola producers.

If a farm worker is seriously injured or killed where there is no OHSA or WCB coverage, the only option he or she has is to sue the employer, and most don't have such resources. The problem is complicated further in the case of temporary foreign migrant labourers, whose short stays prevent them from pursuing compensation from their employers. Of all paid farm employees, 62% were seasonal or temporary, according to the 2011 Census of Agriculture.

Farms and hospitals in Grande Prairie are not required to report farm worker incidents, confirmed Lubeck. The county does not have statistics on the scale of the problem, creating an environment in which it is difficult for farm workers to demand changes to the regulation, should it be needed.

Premier Alison Redford committed to revising farm worker health and safety laws in her 2011 campaign. In line with this, the ministers of human services and agricultural development are meeting next week to look at safety and standards in the farming sector to determine what the next steps should be, confirmed Brookes Merritt from Alberta Human Services.

Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune, Tuesday Oct 02 2012
Byline: Alina Konevski

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