Despite promises of reform, province’s agricultural workers are excluded from employment standards
Calgary - As agricultural workers mark the province’s tenth annual Farm Workers Day, Alberta remains the only place in Canada that excludes them from employment standards, health and safety and the right to unionize.
On Wednesday, August 20, at an event at the Bridgeland Riverside Community Centre (917 Centre Ave. NE, Calgary AB) the Alberta Federation of Labour joined representatives of other concerned organizations in calling for the immediate inclusion of agricultural workers in Alberta’s workplace standards.
“The people who work in Alberta’s vibrant agricultural sector deserve the same protections as any other Albertans,” AFL secretary treasurer Siobhan Vipond said. “It’s an antiquated exception from the rules that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century. This doesn’t happen anywhere else in Canada – or in most G7 nations. We’re completely alone in this unfair, unjust and callous disregard of the wellbeing of agricultural workers.”
More than 50,000 Albertans work in the agricultural sector. They account for 2.6 per cent of our workforce — and yet have few legal protections in their workplace. One in five agricultural workers in Alberta work at worksites with more than 20 employees.
“When these workers were excluded in the law, it was 1943, and farming was mostly done on family farms,” Vipond said. “But it’s been 70 years, and farming has changed. It is now dominated by huge corporations operating massive hog barns, corporate farms and mushroom factories, employing hundreds of workers. It’s time the law reflected reality, and protected these workers.”
Agricultural workers are exempt for most of the basic employment protections all other Albertans take for granted which makes them very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. These workers have:
- No basic employment protections, such as minimum wage, limits on hours of work, rest breaks, overtime or statutory holiday pay;
- No health and safety protection ;
- No WCB when they get injured; and
- No right to unionize.
“Too many injuries and tragedies happen on Alberta’s farms. Too many of those could be prevented. There have been promises from the government, but no action on this issue,” Vipond said. “The exclusion of agricultural workers from the most basic workplace protections is a travesty, and one that Premier Hancock could rectify with the stroke of a pen.”
The annual Alberta Farm Workers Day commemorates the death of agricultural worker Terry Rash, who lost his life at the hands of his employer on August 20, 1999. Each year since 2005, Albertans commemorate Rash’s death, as well as the many other agricultural workers who have lost their lives as a result of work-related illness or injury.-30-
Olav Rokne, Communications Director, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.218.4351 (cell)
or via e-mail [email protected]
Labour leaders are giving rare praise to the Alberta government for a revamped website that allows people to find out which employers have the highest number of workplace deaths and injuries
The government has put the information online since 2010 but critics said that the website was hard to search. The new version launched at the end of April changes that.
"Workers deserve to know which employers are taking health and safety seriously and which are not," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, who calls the site a good first step.
Alberta Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Kyle Fawcett says searching under the old format was time-consuming.
"People would have been very unlikely to put in that time and effort," he said. "Now it's real easy and we think it's in a much more usable format."
However, Fawcett cautioned against taking the list at face value.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that it's an employer with a poor safety record. It is a real assessment of what injury rates, disabling rates occurred that year."
In terms of significant on-the-job injuries, Weisse Johnson was one of top 10 offenders in 2012 – something the company's co-owner feels is misleading.
"Almost all of our injuries are related to cuts and the odd twisted ankle carrying product in and out of houses," said Dennis Johnson.
However, he said the company has never had a serious injury.
"It's a little disheartening because people might get in their minds that we're a bad company to work for and that we don't work for their safety," he said. "Safety is one of our core values here at Weiss Johnson.
While McGowan is pleased the information is out there, he hopes the government uses it to inspect and investigate employers with the highest rates of death and injury.
"The real test is whether or not the government will use this information to actually force employers to clean up their acts when it comes to workplace health and safety."
The site covers the period from 2008 to 2012, the most recent information available. Fawcett says the government is looking at updating the site.
CBC, 2014 June 11
AFL calls for action on worker safety during Day of Mourning For Workers Killed or Injured On the Job
EDMONTON – Alberta is one of most dangerous places in Canada to be a worker, but the government has an opportunity to make change for the better.
While taking part in ceremonies for the International Day of Mourning for Workers Killed or Injured on the Job today, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan urged government to use the current Employment Standards Review process to make the province’s workplaces safer.
“Alberta is the only place in Canada where we find so many exemptions and lack of safety inspections, enforcement, or prosecutions. There is more impunity in this province than anywhere else in Canada. It is the best place in Canada for employers to get away with unsafe work, and remains one of the most dangerous places in Canada to be a worker,” McGowan said at the Edmonton District Labour Council’s Day of Mourning ceremony at Grant Notley Park in Edmonton at 6 p.m.
The AFL has a ten-point plan for worker safety on the job, which includes more resources for prosecutions, administrative fines with teeth, posting safety records online, joint worker-employer health and safety committees, eliminating child labour in mainstream workplaces, covering farm workers under occupational health and safety standards, an inquiry into workplace carcinogens and occupational disease, more resources for targeted inspections and enforcement in dangerous industries, ending bonuses to WCB workers for denying claims and increasing WCB premiums in dangerous industries.
So far, the Government of Alberta has refused to implement these common-sense recommendations. Alberta’s workplace fatalities have increased from 43 in 2011 to 52 last year.
THE DAY OF MOURNING BY THE NUMBERS
99 deaths of occupational disease in Alberta
52 deaths from workplace incidents/accidents
37 deaths from motor vehicle collisions on the job
Number of charges laid, at April 28, 2014, by Alberta Crown Prosecutors, stemming from the 52 workplace fatalities in 2013: 0
Number of charges laid, at April 28, 2014, by Alberta Crown Prosecutors stemming from the 51 workplace fatalities in 2012: 2
Number of convictions so far for 2012-13 workplace fatalities: 0
Year Premier Redford promised to include farm workers in Occupational health and Safety standards: 2011
Year Alberta stopped reporting farm worker deaths: 2012
Number of provinces that share Alberta’s exemption for industrial feedlots, grain operations, and other farm workplaces from Occupational Health and Safety Standards: 0
Number of provinces that do not have joint worker-employer health and safety committees: 1 (Alberta)
Number of provinces that allow children between 12-14 to work in some restaurant and retail jobs: 1 (Alberta)-30-
Olav Rokne, Communications Director, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.289.6528 (cell)
or via e-mail [email protected]
Federation of Labour Reminds Premier of Her Promise to Improve Farm Safety Regulations
Edmonton – Farm workers deserve straight answers as to why Alison Redford has not fulfilled her promise of workplace rights for agricultural workers.
In a letter to the Premier on Aug. 20, the Alberta Federation of Labour reminded Redford of promises that she made during the 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership race. During the race, Redford told the Calgary Herald editorial board: “We have to have farm workers protected. Hired employees on farms are entitled to that protection.”
Alberta remains the only province where farm workers are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, as well as legislation governing hours of work and overtime, statutory holidays, vacation pay, the right to refuse unsafe work, being informed of work-related dangers and compensation if they are injured on the job.
Provincial Occupational Health and Safety Regulations specifically omit agricultural worksites.
“It’s been two years and we’ve seen little movement to fulfill this commitment,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan wrote in the letter. “Of course, politicians are allowed to change their minds when new facts come to light or circumstances change. But citizens deserve an explanation.”
The Government of Alberta also continues to ignore the advice of one of its own judges. A judicial inquiry into the death of farm worker Kevin Chandler found Alberta’s discriminatory practice against farm workers unjustifiable.
Judge Peter Barley, the Provincial Court Judge assigned to the Inquiry wrote in his report, “No logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm employees.”
The Alberta Federation of Labour declared August 20 to be Farm Workers Day at the organization’s 2005 Convention, and has been calling on the government to allow farm workers the same protections as most Alberta workers enjoy.
“The people who work in Alberta’s vibrant agricultural sector deserve the same protections as any other Albertans,” McGowan said. “It’s clear from her comments in 2011, that Alison Redford understands this. I would like to know the Premier’s reasoning for not turning her commitment into action.”-30-
Olav Rokne, Communications Director, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.289.6528 (cell)
or via e-mail [email protected]
May 2013: Alberta embracing The Better Way Campaign; 19th Annual Kids' Camp; AFL wins battle in fight against exploitation of Temporary Foreign Workers; Convention videos online at AFL Yo...
Urgent Action: Alberta embracing The Better Way Campaign
Since April 1, moviegoers all over Alberta have been getting a message on the Better Way Alberta campaign. The message, in which Albertans are "thanked" for giving away their oil and gas so cheaply, has been shown before every movie on 188 screens.
The Better Way Alberta campaign is a collaboration between the AFL and several member unions including HSAA, UNA and CUPE. Advertising, media and our website www.betterwayalberta.com all make the case for sensible budgeting that puts the best interest of people first, and includes research showing that royalties and taxes may need to be increased.
Check out the Better Way Alberta ad
Action Item: 19th Annual Kids' Camp
The AFL Kids' Camp is a five-day event that combines summer fun with educational activities.
The camp, which has been running for 19 years, has become a popular event on the AFL calendar. In 2013, the camp will be themed around the history of labour in Canada.
The camp is open to children of trade unionists belonging to unions affiliated to the Alberta Federation of Labour. Learning is combined with recreational activities such as canoeing, wall climbing, hiking, mine tour, rappelling, group challenges, crafts and swimming.
When: August 5 – 9, 2013
Where: Goldeye Centre near Nordegg on Goldeye Lake
Ages: 8 to 15 years
Forms package to be completed and mailed/faxed to the AFL offices by June 14, 2013
AFL wins battle in fight against exploitation of Temporary Foreign Workers
Recently announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program are a victory for Canadian labour rights.
The Federal government has eliminated the pay differential for TFWs, and indefinitely suspended the fast-track ALMO process for bringing in workers.
Although there is a lot of work left to be done in preventing employers from exploiting people coming to Canada for work, the Alberta Federation of Labour is proud that it has played a key role in bringing to light the ways in which the TFW program is being used to exploit workers and drive down wages.
"Exploitation is fundamentally unCanadian, that's why t this program doesn't sit well with Canadians," AFL president Gil McGowan said. "I'm proud of the work the AFL has done in investigating the TFW program, and proud as a Canadian that the public in this country won't stand for how this program is being used."
The AFL released the latest in a series of reports on the Temporary Foreign Worker program recently, showing that workers are being brought in regardless of prevailing economic conditions. During the recession, Alberta lost tens of thousands of jobs. Yet, employers brought in tens of thousands of Temporary Foreign Workers. In 2011, the economy recovered and began creating jobs. But there was a Temporary Foreign Worker present in Alberta for three of every four jobs created.
Convention videos online at AFL Youtube channelIf you missed it the first time, you can watch highlights from Alberta Federation of Labour's 48th constitutional convention on the internet.
For the first time, the proceedings have been made available to watch at the federation's youtube channel (youtube.com/ABFedLabour). Talks by speakers such as Allan Gregg, Jim Stanford, and Armine Yalnizyan have already been watched by hundreds of AFL affiliates and allies from as far away as California.
More than 7,000 people have already watched the videos, which were produced with the assistance of United Nurses videographer Jeremy Rittwage and the team from Listen Louder Productions. Videos that feature convention delegates being interviewed about what their unions mean to them are generating upwards of 300.
"There was a focused effort to make this convention relevant to people who couldn't be there in person," AFL president Gil McGowan said. "I'm proud to say that we accomplished that. The feedback from the videos has been extremely positive."
AFL offers solidarity to prison workers in struggle for workplace safetyThe Alberta Federation of Labour has raised concerns about the province's handling of a four-day wildcat strike by unionized employees of Alberta's prison system. The four-day strike was sparked by the government's refusal to address health and safety concerns at the new Remand Centre in Edmonton.
After the strike, the government has imposed fines of $450,000, and has sought to suspend the collection of union dues to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. Although the AUPE is not affiliated with the AFL, the government's draconian response has raised concern in the broader labour movement about the treatment workers can expect from the provincial Tories.
"Every crisis presents opportunities and this situation is no different. The government could have addressed the workers' legitimate safety concerns in a timely and balanced manner. This would have improved the important relationship between a government and these workers," AFL president Gil McGowan said. "But that opportunity has been squandered by threats, intimidation and now specter of punitive measures against the union. As a result, labour relations are worse now than they were before the strike."
BLOCK the PARTYAlbertans are standing together for a BLOCK (the) PARTY rally from 12-2 p.m. on May 25th to create a block against the policies and recent budget cuts that negatively impact families, the most vulnerable, and all sectors in Alberta.
The rally will be held at 45th Avenue between Gateway Boulevard and Calgary Trail S, just north of the Radisson Hotel, where the Conservative Party will be holding their policy convention.
Come together with other Albertans by the busloads and help us remind our leaders that there is a Better Way!
Did you know ...
• In 2007, Alberta's Royalty Review panel ruled that the province's rate of 58% for natural gas was too low. Today, the rate is 34%.
• Royalty giveaways since 2009 have cost Albertans at least $4.7 billion.
• Three of every four new jobs created in Alberta since 2010 have been filled by workers brought in under the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
• May 22: Shooting the Messenger: The Need for Effective Whistleblower Protection in Alberta, (Parkland) – 7:00 PM Telus Centre, Room 134 U of A (87th Avenue)
• May 23-26: Canadian Association of Labour Media conference (calm.ca/conference)
• June 10-11: AFL Executive Council Retreat (Calgary)
• June 12: AFL Executive Council (Calgary)
• June 14: Deadline to register for AFL Kids Camp
AFL urges premier to address health and safety concerns of workers so situation can be resolved
Edmonton – Alberta’s largest labour group, representing 160,000 workers, is urging the premier to negotiate in good faith with striking prison workers.
In a statement released today, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) said that the wildcat strike at Alberta’s prisons was spinning out of control because of the government’s intransigence toward legitimate worker concerns.
“The government needs to stop focusing on bullying workers and start focusing on their legitimate concerns about health and safety,” AFL president Gil McGowan said. “If they do that, this situation will be resolved.”
The Federation expressed solidarity with the workers at the new $580-million Remand Centre, who have been raising health and safety concerns for several months leading up to the strike. What started as a walkout by 70 workers has escalated with strikes at 10 provincial facilities, and hundreds of workers multiple unions staying out of the prisons due to deteriorating conditions, and out-of-control inmates.
“Quite frankly, the deputy premier shouldn’t be grandstanding about how he won’t negotiate,” McGowan said. “It’s not productive, it’s not going to resolve this issue, and it’s not in the public interest.”
At noon on Saturday, more than 500 Alberta Federation of Labour members representing 29 affiliated unions marched on the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) in an impromptu demonstration of solidarity with the prison workers.
“These workers did the brave thing, the right thing for demanding a safe workplace,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. “And the government has responded by trying to silence them, telling them to put themselves in unnecessary risk, and telling them it’s not even something they’re willing to talk about.”
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780-218-9888 (cell)
Olav Rokne, AFL Communications Director at 780-289-6528 (cell) or via email [email protected].
Ignores recommendation from freedom of information commissioner
Alberta Human Services refuses to release information that would identify the province's most unsafe, "high-risk employers," effectively brushing off a ruling by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
"I think it's frightening," said Linda McKay-Panos of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre at the University of Calgary.
"It could be interpreted to mean that they don't want people to know about certain activities, and that is troubling because the information that is held by the government is our information. It belongs to the public and we have a right to know it."
CBC News filed a freedom of information request to Alberta Human Services in July 2012 seeking all records related to a database containing the workplace safety records of more than 150,000 employers.
The department maintains a searchable online database but it does not allow comparative searches to determine the worst employers.
The department refused to release any information citing several exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).
University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody is questioning the government's commitment to transparency in light of this case. University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody is questioning the government's commitment to transparency in light of this case. (CBC )
The department claimed, for example, that release of the information would harm business interests. It further claimed release of the information could "harm a law-enforcement matter" and it also claimed the information constituted "advice" under the act and was therefore exempt.
Catherine Taylor, a senior portfolio officer with the FOIP commissioner's office, reviewed the department's refusal at the request of CBC.
But even before Taylor began the review, the department told her it would not "change its decision regardless of (her) findings."
Taylor subsequently ruled none of the exemptions cited by Human Services was valid.
"I would recommend that (Alberta Human Services) release the records," Taylor wrote. "However, as I mentioned above I have already been informed that a decision change will not occur."
CBC News has been granted an inquiry by the FOIP commissioner into the department's refusal to provide the information.
But even if the commissioner orders the department to release the information, it could refuse.
CBC News would then have no option but to seek the release of the records through the courts, a process that could take years.
Professor questions commitment to transparency
Alison Redford ran for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party, and in the subsequent election, on a reform platform, including increased transparency and accountability.
To that end, Redford even created a junior ministry of transparency, accountability and reform which is now reviewing the current FOIP Act for the stated purpose of improving public access to information.
University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody said this case "speaks volumes about the Redford government's commitment to freedom of information and transparency in governing.
"I think what we are learning is that, as we move on in the Redford years, transparency is a very fluid commodity," Lightbody said.
"(We're learning) that transparency works when it shows the government in a good light; transparency works when it can promote the government's agenda on tax reform and budget accountability; transparency evaporates when it concerns some things that may reflect negatively on specific Alberta businesses."
Auditor general criticized Alberta Human Services
Nearly 51,000 workers were injured, and another 123 were killed in Alberta in 2011, according to Workers Compensation Board statistics.
In 2010, Alberta Auditor General, Merwan Saher conducted an audit of the department.
Saher reported the department not only did not adequately identify high-risk employers and workers, it also did not apply adequate enforcement to deter them from breaking the law.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan believes the government is putting workers at risk by refusing to release the information. Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan believes the government is putting workers at risk by refusing to release the information. (CBC)
Saher recommended the department develop criteria to identify high-risk employers and workers, and step up enforcement.
By 2012, the department still had not responded to his recommendations so he repeated them.
"The department still has not sufficiently defined high-risk employers and workers," Saher's 2012 report stated.
"It also does not have processes that will comprehensively identify high-risk employers and workers and apply enforcement actions that will deter them from breaking the law.
"Although the department has various enforcement tools to motivate employers to improve workplace safety, it has limited enforcement actions for the few high-risk employers and workers who fail to comply with the law."
Over the past week, neither Human Services Minister Dave Hancock nor his press secretary, Craig Loewen, have responded to repeated interview requests made by CBC through the department.
But in an email last week, department spokeswoman Kathy Telfer said it is still working on the high-risk criteria.
CBC News told Telfer it wanted to ask Hancock how his department justified withholding records that the FOI commissioner had ruled should be released. The email from Telfer provided information about department safety initiatives but did not answer that question.
Alberta Federation of Labour also failed to get records
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the federation tried for years to obtain the high-risk employer records through FOIP, but finally gave up.
"This bad-boss list is not just a list of a handful of employers who once in a while ignore the health and safety of their workers," McGowan said.
"These are repeat offenders who have been on the government's radar for years, and who continue to be a problem and continue to put their employees at risk of injury, and perhaps even death.
"So this is information that working Albertans deserve to know, and it's what people need to know about their bosses, and about their prospective bosses.
"And by withholding this information from the public, we feel very strongly that the government is actually putting Albertans at risk, and they're doing that unnecessarily.
"And to have them continue to hide this information, even though the information commissioner has ordered them very explicitly to disclose it, is just adding insult to injury. "
CBC News, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013
The recent meat recall at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta is not wanting in superlatives.
It is one of the most massive meat recalls in Canadian history involving one of the country's largest beef packing plants that processes more than 4,000 head of cattle a day. Meat tainted with E. coli sickened a four-year-old boy and numerous others, resulting in the facility being shut down for a month and thousands of workers laid off.
Management of the beleaguered plant, owned by Brian and Lee Nilsson — brothers with a family tradition of ranching — has since been taken over by JBS USA, a leading animal protein processor in the United States and Australia.
Media coverage of this incident has focused primarily on public food safety. Justifiably so, considering that the meat processed by XL Foods is shipped to more than a dozen countries. But little has been said or heard about the invisible, voiceless workers — many of whom are temporary and foreign — toiling behind the walls of the plant. What are the occupational health and safety risks they are exposed to when handling pathogen-tainted meat that sickened so many?
A summary of non-compliances compiled by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at XL Foods noted multiple deficiencies in sanitation and maintenance: grease build-up and blood clots on the evisceration table; broken eye/handwash tap; large amounts of fat and meat build-up throughout; water pooling on the floors; a foul odour from a drain near the rendering room; condensation on the kill floor and in the offal hallway dripping onto boxed products; antimicrobial dripping onto rusty pipe and products; improper airflow at the processing floor; and bung bags in contact with a sink.
"This is dirty, dangerous work even in the best of circumstances," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton. "It is clear to us that there are both food safety problems and work safety problems at the Brooks packing plant and in many cases, the two are related."
Bob Jackson, regional executive-vice president for British Columbia with Public Service Alliance of Canada in Vancouver, says work conditions in meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses are "almost indescribable" at times. "There has always been hazards involved in this line of work, just the environmental conditions that people are put into. You are dealing with heat, humidity, constant alerts around moving equipment and slippery floors," says Jackson, who was a former meat inspector.
Workers face a risk of direct exposure to pathogens by being in contact with contaminants that are aerosolized when handling carcasses stained with blood, feces and bodily fluids in a steamy environment with temperatures routinely reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100 per cent humidity, Jackson notes.
While workers are provided with personal protective equipment, they may not be utilized to the fullest extent, considering the discomfort of donning additional clothing, hard hats and goggles that can steam up under such conditions. "You can imagine what that might feel like in terms of real world protection," he adds, noting that it was quite routine to see workers not wearing the necessary protective gear.
"It is up to management in these facilities to ensure their employees are taking proper precautions and sometimes, the management is not totally on top of it," Jackson suggests.
One-third of the 2,200 employees at XL Foods comprise temporary foreign workers, although that number fluctuates. Finding workers has been a chronic problem in meatpacking facilities, particularly in isolated communities such as Brooks, a two-hour drive from Calgary.
"There are many days when Brooks simply did not have enough people on the line to maintain speed," McGowan notes. "And that has obvious implications for both food safety and workplace safety, because inexperienced workers tend to be more vulnerable to workplace accidents and they are also less likely to be familiar with food safety protocols."
He reports conversations with plant workers who say line speeds are too fast for them to keep up. "On average, they are dealing with about 260 carcasses every hour, which does not give them enough time to follow safety protocols, but also increase[s] the likelihood of injuries when it comes to the use of their knives and also puts what we would describe as undue stress on their bodies."
Through the years, technology and mechanization have shaped how work is being done in meatpacking facilities. When Jackson started working in the industry back in the '80s, he recalls handling up 40 to 50 carcasses every hour. While there is a lot more mechanization today to perform some of the functions, he says it is "an incredible speed requirement," citing poultry carcasses going by on an evisceration line at two or three birds a second.
"It becomes almost impossible to do a proper job, to do it safely, to make sure that your equipment is properly sanitized in between carcasses, that people are given opportunities to ensure their tools and equipment are in top shape," Jackson contends. Blunt knives, which require the use of greater force, also increases the likelihood of cuts should the knife slip. "If you are trying to incise lymph nodes with a knife for instance, you have to do it at a speed that will allow you to keep up," he adds. "Your brain is spinning at that speed trying to concentrate on doing any kind of a real function."
Line specialization also means that workers are performing the same movements hundreds of times for hours each day, putting them at an elevated risk of repetitive strain injuries, notes Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
While different estimates have been made on the speed of lines, which varies depending on the slaughterhouse, the most commonly-used estimates are those in larger facilities that process 400 head of cattle an hour. "Based on the estimates I have seen, the line speeds in North America are said to be double of what they are in Europe," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
"Line speeds are based on a very complex arrangement of factors," Jackson notes, citing considerations that include physical constraints of the plant, workers' profile and level of training, the type of livestock being processed and the condition of animals when they come into the facility.
Doug Powell, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine's department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, concurs that line speed is a factor in safety, "but not a concern if attention is being paid to worker and microbial safety."
Food safety management systems incorporate a series of hurdles in the processing system, which contributes to a cumulative decrease in the possibility and number of pathogens present in the food supply, notes information from the CFIA. Hot water and steam pasteurization, application of organic acids and evaluation of the safety and efficacy of antibacterial agents prior to application are among the measures used.
Should a line speed surpass a worker's capacity to effectively perform the requisite food safety functions, inspectors and veterinarians appointed by the agency have the authority to order an immediate cessation of production. "Federally-registered meatpacking and processing establishments must satisfy all requisite occupational health and safety requirements," says Ronald Davidson, government and media relations director with the Canadian Meat Council in Ottawa.
Line speed is intrinsically tied to the stunning of animals, which has a bearing on worker safety. Animals that are improperly stunned thrash about as they are being hoisted, presenting a significant risk to the sticker, who has to cut the throat of the beast weighing hundreds of pounds.
"There has been many incidents where animals from a wide variety of species are not stunned adequately," Jackson points out, adding that this was a frequent occurrence even before high line-speeds came into the picture. He describes scenarios in which animals that escape the stunning process end up on the kill floor alive and running around.
In the poultry business where stunning is largely mechanized through electrocution, "there are many incidents of animals not being stunned before going into the scalding process for instance, so there is the inhumane aspect as well as the safety aspect," Jackson notes.
However, that does not mean workers can let their guard down when handling a properly-stunned animal. Chris Fuller, general manager with Alleghany Meats in Monterey, Virginia cautions that even an immobile or unconscious animal is dangerous to approach as its nervous system is still reacting. "There is a lot of thrashing and a lot of movement still," Fuller describes. "You have to be very diligent in the way you approach them and making sure that you are keeping yourself safe when you do so."
Workers should watch out for signs of improper stunning by looking at the side of the animal to see if there is ribneck breathing. Blinking of the eyes is another indicator. In such cases, the animal needs to be restunned before it is killed. "That is proper procedure through the entire industry."
There is also the mental health aspect of working in places where animals hang upside down all day long. "These environments are incredibly difficult to work in," Jackson suggests.
But little research has been done in this area to offer insight on the mental repercussions on those who toil in these environments. "We really don't have systematic information about it," says Dr. Fitzgerald, who co-authored a study in 2009, examining the relationship between slaughterhouse employment levels and crime rates. Results were compared with other manufacturing industries with similar labour force composition, injury and illness rates, but engage in inanimate materials of production.
The study, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates, hypothesizes that the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for workers over and above other characteristics of the work. It examines slaughterhouse facilities in 581 counties. The data, accessed through the United States Census Bureau's County Business Patterns, covers the period from 1994 to 2002.
Results indicate that the slaughterhouse employment variable has a significant positive effect on arrests for rape and other sex offences — effects not found in the comparison industries. An average-sized slaughterhouse, which employs 175 people, would be expected to increase the number of arrests by 2.24 and the report rate by 4.69. The expected arrest and report value in counties with 7,500 slaughterhouse employees are more than double the values where there are no slaughterhouse workers.
The study argues the results lend support to the argument that the industrial slaughterhouse is different in its effects from other industrial facilities. "Many of these offences are perpetrated against those with less power and we interpret this as evidence that the work done within slaughterhouses might spill over to violence against other less powerful groups, such as women and children."
An earlier study, which looks at 1,404 non-metropolitan counties in the United States from 1990 to 2000, arrived at similar conclusions. Counties with growth in meatpacking employment experienced faster growth in violent crime rates over the decade relative to counties without packing plants.
The psychological trauma of slaughterhouse work can be inflicted on workers in several ways: perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), empathy suppression and violating the natural preference against killing, notes a study published in 2008 by Jennifer Dillard of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers in the United States from workplace hazards, "the lack of psychological regulation is due to the agency's prioritizing of more traditional, physical health issues and the 'perceived exigency' of these problems," she contends.
Perpetration-induced traumatic stress is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by being an active participant in causing trauma. Occupations that can put workers at risk of PITS include soldiers, executioners and police officers, where it is socially acceptable or even expected of them to cause trauma, including death. Symptoms of PITS include substance abuse, depression, increased paranoia and a sense of disintegration. Dillard notes in her study that substance abuse, which is prevalent among slaughterhouse workers, is evidence of the adverse psychological impact associated with the nature of their work.
The intensive, production-focused nature of factory farming and meatpacking facilities also requires workers in such workplaces to suppress their spontaneous empathy for animals. "By habitually violating one's natural preference against killing, the worker very likely is adversely psychologically impacted," Dillard concludes.
NOW AND THEN
As of October 29, XL Foods Inc. resumed operations under enhanced CFIA oversight and increased testing protocols. A statement from the CFIA notes that agency inspectors closely monitored plant operations, including the uploading and screening of animals, pre-operation inspections, slaughter and the cutting and processing of carcasses. It has also requested the company submit corrective action plans outlining how they will address these issues in the longer term and mitigate future risks.
But the situation was rather different back in early September during the onset of the investigation when the CFIA seemed to have difficulty obtaining information from the plant. That prompted federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz's comments that agency inspectors could have been "more hard-nosed" when dealing with the plant responsible for the country's largest beef recall.
Information from the CFIA indicates that on September 6, the agency requested from XL Foods distribution information and testing results for all products produced on the days when the affected products were made. This was followed by a formal letter on September 7 stating that the company must respond by the following day. The information was provided in a series of submissions over two days on September 10.
"If we did not get what we needed or had requested, we would stop the production line," Jackson says of his time when meat inspectors were given clear direction on where their authorities lie. "What seems to have happened now is inspectors are not being given that direction to the point that they will feel uncomfortable, perhaps stopping the line or taking something out of production," he suggests.
McGowan observes that through the years, the meatpacking industry has been moving towards a policy of self-regulation. The shift started more than a decade ago when the CFIA, created in 1997, came under the responsibility of the agriculture ministry. While federal meat inspections are still being conducted in packing plants, he notes that there is increasing reliance on written reports furnished by quality control officers employed by the plant.
"It is very clear that cuts and deregulation have compromised both worker safety and food safety," McGowan says, stressing the need for more rigorous enforcement. "When it comes to safety, it means more inspectors, more boots on the ground, a greater willingness to shut down plants that are not in compliance. And it also means tougher prosecution."
In a statement issued in October of 2012, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers union called for a public inquiry into the tainted meat debacle to address issues, such as the level of authority and mandate of CFIA employees, line speeds and if there is adequate training and whistleblower protection for workers.
"The results of Canada's system of self-regulation have already been criticized by American inspectors," the statement notes. "Over the last decade, several United States Department of Agriculture inspections have flagged problems with beef processing plants in Alberta."
As a sign of things to come, the federal government will stop inspecting provincially-licensed abattoirs in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba by 2014. Effect from December 31, 2013, British Columbia will take over from the CFIA the responsibility of meat inspection for provincially-licensed Class A and B slaughter facilities. The inspection of federally-licensed abattoirs and other issues of federal jurisdiction will remain under the CFIA.
The British Columbia ministries of Agriculture and Health held extensive consultations with the province's livestock and slaughter industries about the new meat inspection system for provincially licensed abattoirs. Inputs from these consultations, collated in the July of 2012 report, Summary of Industry Consultations of the BC Abattoir Inspection System Review, "reflects the observation that the B.C government will face challenges in implementing a meat inspection system that responds to the needs of all parties. This is especially true in an industry as diverse as B.C.'s meat processing industry," the report states.
Jackson concurs that the agriculture ministry's mandate to act in the interest of the agricultural sector can restrict its regulatory role of ensuring that food products produced by the very industry it is tasked to promote meets federal health standards. "It does raise the spectre of the potential for conflict," he suggests. "I don't recall there being such large incidents of E. coli, Listeriosis and these massive numbers of recalls on an annual basis for a whole wide variety of things."
E. coli, a bacteria that exists naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals, can be transferred to the outer surface of meat during butchering. Some of the most common ways to be infected with E. coli are improper handling of raw ground meat, consumption of undercooked ground meat and contact with feces of cattle. "The bacteria that contaminates the meat can also infect individual workers who come into contact with it," Dr. Fitzgerald cautions.
ON THE GROUND
Fuller understands the challenges of ensuring smooth operation in a meatpacking plant and keeping workers safe at the same time. But the newly-constructed facility where he works makes his job a tad easier. "It is a very new plant. Everything from the handling facility down to the cutting and wrapping have kind of been thought through as best as possible."
He reveals that when the plant had just finished construction in February, they did not realize it would be handling bisons. "So when we got a customer who is talking about a consistent volume of bison coming through here, we invest in upgrading our handling facility to handle these bisons, which are different than cattle. They have a lot more energy."
The type of livestock being handled has an influence on the design of a facility. "The way our facility is set up, we have a way to move the animals without actually getting into the pen with them and I think that is really important," Fuller says. "Humane animal handing has a lot to do with stress so always keep them calm, not getting the animals riled up. That is very helpful in keeping everybody safe." Having more than one worker in a handling facility also allows them to watch each other's backs, he adds.
Keeping the environment sanitary is also key, especially on the kill floor where slips and trips are a real hazard. That means exercising diligence in spraying a floor down if blood is present, keeping the floor free from debris and liquids that could cause other hazards and removing remnants of fat or meat particles from the evisceration process. "You try to avoid having the opportunity to have a lot of bacteria build up in various areas where it will affect the workers or food safety," Fuller cautions. Frequent handwashing and keeping knives clean with sterilizer boxes where knives can be dipped are among the preventive measures, he adds.
Verbal communication is also important in alerting workers to hazards. Physical dangers abound in an environment where carcasses are constantly being moved across rail lines. "When you have a 600-pound carcass coming down the line, you got to be careful," Powell cautions.
Workers also need to be adequately trained to safely do their jobs, considering that meatpacking plants often employ a high proportion of migrant workers. "The industry has become quite adept at recruiting the most marginalized population that are quite vulnerable," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests.
McGowan agrees. "A lot of these temporary farm workers are very reluctant to speak out for themselves when it comes to any issue, especially safety issues. They want to stay in Canada and so they keep quiet, keep their heads down and continue working."
In a meatpacking facility in Colorado where Fuller used to work, he recalls working alongside employees from Mexico, some of whom spoke little English. To address the language barrier, he had a bilingual worker translate the standard operational procedure, which was written in English, into Spanish for reading by the Mexican workers as part of their training. A supervisor was then assigned to provide hands-on training. He also made sure that a worker who speaks only Spanish would not be placed to work alongside purely English speakers. "I have somebody who spoke Spanish around so they could communicate effectively with the whole group," he adds.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The CFIA says the tainted meat incident at XL Foods cannot be attributed to a specific problem. However, there are a number of factors that, when considered collectively, may have contributed to the incident. These preliminary findings are already being considered by both the CFIA and the meat industry. The review has resulted in some modifications to previous practices, the Canadian Meat Council reports.
"A good place to start is slowing down line speeds," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests. "It has been ratcheted up to increase profits, but it really is causing more problems for workers and for meat safety." She suggests that the industry's high turnover rate has led to on-the-job training falling by the wayside.
For Powell, enforcement certainly has a part to play, but so does company culture. "What they need is a culture that values food safety and worker safety as much as it values profit."
Jackson is of the mind that an emphasis on controlling the environment as much as possible is needed. Sufficient resources should be made available to ensure that workers have proper breaks away from the lines and their mental capabilities are looked after. "I don't know if there have been studies done on the long-term effects of being exposed to these environments over a person's career. I'm sure it can't be healthy."
For that to take place, a fundamental change to the legal and regulatory frameworks needs to be effected. Although Dillard's study is framed within an American context, her recommendations on ways to improve the mental health of meatpacking plant workers nevertheless have resonance for Canada, which shipped $24 billion worth of meat products worldwide in 2010.
She recommends that a regulatory framework for psychological safety in slaughterhouses be developed under the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "Just as OSHA inspectors can pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to an employee's physical safety, OSHA inspectors could use their inspections to pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to psychological safety," Dillard writes.
Workers' compensation can also serve as a legal scheme to redress the psychological harm associated with slaughterhouse work. Dillard argues that such a system would encourage employers to maintain psychologically healthy work environments and provide monetary relief to employees who suffer from ongoing, pervasive psychological trauma due to the violence of their workplace. "A typical slaughterhouse should be considered an ultrahazardous activity for psychological well-being, and employers should be liable for psychological damage caused by the work," Dillard contends.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, caused a public furor with its descriptions of morbid conditions in meatpacking houses in the Chicago stockyards during the early 20th century. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was created in the same year the novel was published.
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," wrote Sinclair in reference to the unintended consequences of sparking an outcry against the sector. Hopefully, the XL Foods incident — which has hit many Canadians in the stomach — will also accidentally touch our hearts.
BEHIND THE WALLS
Meatpacking facilities are not accessible to members of the public, but it does not take much imagination to figure out how the ubiquitous use of sharp knives, handling animals and high line speeds converge to create an environment conducive for accidents and increased repetitive movements. A look at injury statistics can put that in perspective.
In 2010, Alberta's meat, hides and pelt products sub-sector had a disabling injury claim rate of 12.42 per 100 person-years worked — the highest of any manufacturing, processing and packaging sub-sectors, notes information from Occupational Injuries and Diseases in Alberta.
Hands and fingers are the most commonly injured body parts (27 per cent), followed by the back (13 per cent) and shoulders (11 per cent), notes information from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in Australia.
OHS, January/February 2013 issue
Byline: Jean Lian, Editor of OHS Canada
Food inspectors say a management takeover at the plant at the centre of Canada's largest beef recall will not impact their decision about if and when the facility can reopen.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said the fact management of the shuttered XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., will be handed over to a subsidiary of processing company JBS USA will not affect its review of the facility's procedures and products.
Wednesday's deal also gives JBS the option to buy the Brooks plant as well as other XL facilities and operations.
"The CFIA's decisions have been, and continue to be, based on scientific evidence and a precautionary approach to protect consumers," said the agency.
The meat-processing plant currently at the centre of Canada's largest beef recall, which includes about 2,000 products, had its licence suspended Sept. 27 following concerns about E. coli contamination.
The CFIA last week began an inspection of the plant after XL said it had made the required changes to get its licence back.
On the weekend, the company temporarily laid off 2,000 workers, then recalled 800 of them Tuesday so inspectors could continue their assessment. The employees were back out of work Wednesday.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford Thursday said reopening the plant continues to be a priority for the province, as does the promotion of Alberta beef as a safe and healthy product.
"We've been working very hard to get that plant open as soon as possible so that it doesn't adversely impact either beef producers or employees," she said.
Provincial Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson said he's taking the transfer of management to JBS as "a good sign that XL is serious about the continued operation of the plant," adding JBS is highly respected in the industry.
Olson, who is in continued talks with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, wouldn't comment on whether the JBS deal suggests previous management problems at the Brooks facility.
"We are not looking to point the finger at anybody who's at fault here. We're not looking for a public flogging, we just want the plant open, producing safe food," he said.
Meanwhile, Doug O'Halloran, president of the union representing XL workers, said he and Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, sent Redford a letter asking her to reconsider a public inquiry into the situation surrounding XL.
He also wants food-safety inspections to be moved under the federal government's health division as opposed to the agriculture division.
SunNews, Thurs Oct 18 2012
Byline: Jenna McMurray
Union holds news conference to discuss safety protocols, meat production expectationsThe union representing workers at XL Foods Inc. is calling for a public inquiry into the massive beef recallat the company's meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alta.
Doug O'Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said the federal government is to blame for cutting back on much-needed funding.
"We don't think the government can do the inquiry, we think they are part of the problem," he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
O'Halloran said Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors are doing a good job, but added there needs to be more of them.
He also voiced concerns that CFIA inspectors don't have the authority to shut down a line if they think there is a safety concern.
O'Halloran said employees have been getting paid since the closure of the plant, and urged employee involvement going forward.
“It’s tragic that we had to have this situation, but I think in the long run we’re going to have an industry that’s better, that’s greater," O’Halloran said.
"We want to work with XL, we want them to be part of the solution, but they’ve got to listen to the workers.”
Employees speak out
XL Foods employee Wilfred Garcia says workers feel pressure to keep production lines moving — sometimes at the expense of food safety practices.
"There's not enough employees for the 4,000 pieces they process every day...and that's why there's this problem too," Garcia said.
XL 'saddened' by union claims
XL Foods released a statement late Wednesday afternoon in response to the union. The company said management has always been open to discuss plant operations with workers.
“I am saddened that the UFCW has chosen to attack the workmanship of its many members. We have extensive training programs for new workers and hold our workers in the highest regard for their abilities,” said co-CEO Brian Nilsson in the release.
The statement also noted that the line speed at XL Foods is within regulatory requirements.
Quebec E. coli illness confirmed
O’Halloran's comments came just before a 12th case of E. coli was confirmed. A Quebec investigation linked an illness in the province two weeks ago to E. coli O157, the strain at the centre of the XL Foods investigation. The affected individual has since recovered.
That brings the total of E. coli cases to 12 — seven cases in Alberta, one in Newfoundland, one in B.C. and three in Quebec — according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
'Culture change needed'
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Wednesday there needs to be a change to the employer's approach to food safety.
"There is a culture in that plant that puts priority on quantity over quality and until that changes we’re going to continue to struggle," said McGowan.
Keith Warriner, director of the University of Guelph’s food safety and quality assurance program, said there has been a lot of finger-pointing over food safety at the plant.
“In a lot of ways, it’s passing the buck,” said Warriner.
“Workers passing the buck to the management, management passing the buck to the CFIA.”
Warriner also said it was “obvious” to him the CFIA is complacent in stepping back.
XL Foods silence 'damaging'
Alberta's Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith said XL Foods’ silence over the E. coli problems at the Brooks, Alta., plant has been damaging. “I think that the principal responsibility now for communicating with the public comes down to the company,” said Smith.
“I'd like to see XL Foods, someone, stand up in a press conference with the regulators at their side and talk about what they're doing to restore confidence to make people aware that they've taken this seriously, they apologize for it.”
Smith also said federal and provincial officials may not have done everything possible to deal with the situation.
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said repeated comments from federal officials that the system works well were ridiculous.
“They're not interested in getting to the facts and finding out what went wrong and being honest and straightforward and transparent with the public about something as important as the safety of the food that they eat and serve their children," said Mason.
"We need to have an inquiry and find out what in fact went wrong.”
The Lakeside Packers plant shut down Sept. 26 after the CFIA linked the facility to several beef products tainted with E. coli. More than 1,800 products have been recalled.
CFIA expanded its beef recall again Wednesday night to include some beef jerky sold in New Brunswick and corned beef sold in Quebec. Product details can be found on the CFIA's website.
Agency officials said they will check safety controls and determine if XL Foods has fixed the problems that were uncovered by federal inspectors.
On Tuesday, XL Foods said it had addressed all the safety issues and concerns raised by the CFIA.
"The company has completed implementing corrective action requests issued by the CFIA following the findings of their investigation," XL Foods said in a statement.
CBC News, Oct 10 2012