Inquiry to examine farm safety: Wife has pushed for review of 2006 death

An inquiry into the death of a man killed while working on a farm two years ago will open today -- a hearing labour officials hope will highlight the "deeply flawed" workplace safety legislation in the province.

The inquiry -- scheduled for two days in Okotoks -- will examine the events surrounding the death of Kevan Chandler, who was buried under grain on June 18, 2006, while working at Tongue Creek Feeders in High River.

At the time, Chandler's widow, Lorna, wrote an open letter to Premier Ralph Klein asking to change workplace legislation to include farms, saying safety rules would have saved her husband's life.

While the aim of fatality inquiries is for a judge to make recommendations to prevent similar incidents, the

Alberta Federation of Labour hopes it will bring about substantive changes to farm worker safety in Alberta.

"Alberta is still in the 19th century when it comes to workplace rights for farm workers," federation president Gil McGowan said Tuesday.

"We're hoping the inquiry will find that the system for ensuring workplace health and safety for farmers is deeply flawed."

According to the Alberta Farm Safety Centre, farmers are five times more likely to die from a work-related incident than workers in all other industries.

Last year 12 people died in such incidents -- eight fewer than in 2006, when Chandler was killed.

But under current provincial legislation, farming-related deaths and injuries do not fall under workplace health and safety legislation, following an exemption made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1977.

The farm safety co-ordinator for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development said the legislation exempts any primary agriculture, such as raising livestock or crops.

However, value-added farm industries -- nurseries, greenhouses and mushroom farms, for example -- are included, Laurel Aitken said.

It's a difficult area for the safety act to cover because the farm is sometimes a combination of a workplace and a home.

"No one comes into your home and says, 'Why are you using the ladder you did to clean out the eavestroughs?' " she said. "It's a very grey area in terms of where does the home end and the farm start."

McGowan, however, said there is no excuse for why people like Chandler don't have the same rights and protections as workers in other industries.

"It's not clear that extending workplace safety to farm workers would have saved Kevan's life, but it may have," he said.

The fact that Chandler's death has led to a fatality inquiry is largely owed to work done by his widow, said McGowan.

"She refused to let the issue die," he said.

Still, said Liberal MLA David Swann, the inquiry is coming more than two years after Chandler died.

Swann, who has spoken out often about the discrepancy in workplace safety legislation when it comes to farm workers, said an inquiry should be held for every farming-related death.

In discussions with Albertans, he said, people ask if the province ensures healthy, equal working conditions for all workers in the province.

"We have to say no. There is a unique experience for farm workers in this province," he said.

Calgary Herald, Wed Oct 22 2008
Byline: Gwendolyn Richards

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