Confront lax law on farm safety

Saskatchewan posted its best safety record in two decades last year while in Alberta, workers continue to suffer injuries and deaths at a horrific rate. Why? It's not exactly rocket science. Saskatchewan takes workplace safety more seriously with both education and regulation aimed at reducing injuries and deaths.

The Wheat Province has had eight straight years of decreases in its time-loss injury rate -a 37-per-cent drop in its injury rate since it instituted a WorkSafe Saskatchewan injury-prevention partnership between its Workers Compensation Board and Ministry of Labour Relations.

Saskatchewan prosecutes companies that don't maintain a safe environment for employees. It prosecuted nearly six times as many cases as Alberta in 2010 despite having a workforce a quarter the size.

But where Saskatchewan and most other provinces in Canada really show up Alberta is on farms. Farm workers in at least eight provinces are covered by occupational health and safety legislation. Alberta farmers are not. Farms have been exempt from Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act since 1977.

Twenty-two people died in Alberta farm accidents in 2010, a shocking increase of nine fatalities over the previous year. By comparison, Saskatchewan recorded 10.

Saskatchewan farmers can also voluntarily apply for coverage under the province's Workers' Compensation legislation. Most agricultural employees in Alberta are not eligible for Workers' Compensation. Alberta farm workers also miss out on the protection of labour-standards legislation that provides for overtime, vacation days, time off and minimum wage, but that's another issue.

Alberta's response to its spike in farm fatalities was to appoint a committee. This week, in time for Farm Safety Week, it established a 15-member Farm Safety Advisory Council "to bring government and industry together towards the shared goal of improved farm safety." Creation of this council was first recommended in 2009 and again in 2010 after consultation with 20 "stakeholder groups."

The Alberta Federation of Labour calls this council an exercise in political public relations, and a half measure at best. AFL president Gil McGowan says the Alberta government lacks the courage to stand up to the pressure it is facing from big agricultural business not to introduce workplace safety rules.

But it's not just agricultural corporations that reject the idea of regulation. Smaller farmers don't want to be constrained by another pile of rules either. Many farmers oppose any imposition of OH&S standards, believing as one newly-appointed council member stated, that "farmers should regulate themselves."

"The farmers just don't want legislation telling them what to do," Lacombe-area grain farmer Kathy Pyper said Monday. "The farmers know how to make proper choices and sometimes they (government) get a little carried away with their regulations."

Nine of the 15 members of the new council are farmers. There's also a greenhouse operator, a veterinarian and a feed company official. If they all feel the same way, there is little hope for any reduction in farm accidents any time soon. So far, just talking about farm safety hasn't helped.

This response is typical in Alberta, which was the last province in Canada to implement seatbelt legislation -a full decade after Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Albertans value their freedom, but it is killing them in farmyards every year. Quite often the victims are small children who fall off farm machinery or run under the wheels of farm trucks. Three died on farms and ranches last year. They deserve our protection.

Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden says he hopes to receive draft recommendations for ways to improve farm safety within six months, but he concedes it will be at least a year before any changes could be implemented. And that's probably optimistic.

Will the changes be cosmetic? Will they involve colourful brochures and videos? How many years will pass before Alberta finally joins other provinces that already provide this necessary health-and-safety protection to agricultural workers?

And in the interim, how many more farm workers will die?

Edmonton Journal, Wed Mar 16 2011

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