OHS Canada Magazine

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Greener Pastures

The death of an Alberta farm worker, who was killed when his clothing got caught in a grain auger in January, has renewed calls to bring the province’s agriculture industry into the fold of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)....


The death of an Alberta farm worker, who was killed when his clothing got caught in a grain auger in January, has renewed calls to bring the province’s agriculture industry into the fold of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). The latest incident harks back to a fatality that took place nearly eight years ago.

It was Father’s Day in 2006 when 35-year-old Kevan Chandler was smothered to death at Tongue Creek Feeders near High River, Alberta. Chandler, a supervisor at the feedlot, entered a silo to chip down cattle grain stuck to its walls, while a co-worker stood outside to shovel out the fallen grain. But when his co-worker left briefly to get a longer pole, the grain collapsed onto Chandler, killing him.

Among the findings in the public inquiry into Chandler’s death, released in October of 2008, Judge Peter Barley recommended that farm workers in Alberta be covered by the OHSA and that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development set up safety training programs for farm employers and workers. In response, the provincial government established the Farm Safety Advisory Council (FSAC), which published its recommendations to Alberta’s minister of agriculture on improving and implementing farm health and safety initiatives four years later in 2012.

Despite Judge Barley’s ruling, the FSAC did not propose mandatory occupational health and safety legislation for agricultural workers in Alberta, where most farm workers are still not covered by the OHSA. Instead, the FSAC made four recommendations: establish a provincial awareness coordination body; develop educational, training and certification resource materials and programs; promote industry best practices by implementing safety measures that take place prior to worker involvement; and dedicate staff and resources to ensure the safety of foreign farm workers.

National president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union Devin Yeager, who sat on the council comprising representatives from the government, the industry and the Farm Safety Centre, says he thinks that the recommendations made were positive, but that they did not go far enough. “The one thing that was lacking was legislation, and that was the one thing that I lobbied for,” Yeager says from Calgary.

On this issue, the council was unable to reach a consensus. “I think that exclusion under oh&s guidelines for farm workers is wrong,” he adds, citing as an example the situation of foreign workers — many of whom are put up in substandard housing. “Recommendations are great, but if you don’t implement them and you don’t have some sort of enforcement, there is a concern.”

Shades of Hazards

Farm workers are exposed to various occupational hazards: they are at increased risk of injury and illness from operating machinery, handling animals, working alone, being exposed to chemicals and getting involved in motor vehicle accidents.

Carla Amonson, manager of the West Central Forage Association (WCFA) in Evansburg, Alberta, says long hours and working under time pressure are major challenges that farm workers face. One of agriculture’s biggest safety issues is people being in a rush, she adds, especially during seeding and harvesting. “When guys are trying to get things done within a certain timeframe around weather and whatnot, they are working really, really long hours. And that always has a toll on people and judgement.”

The Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR) notes that 1,975 people died from agricultural injuries between 1990 and 2008. Unlike other hazardous industries, many farm-related injuries and fatalities occur among children and the elderly: 248 children under the age of 15 and 712 adults aged 60 or older died from farm-related injuries during the same period.

Bruce Johnson, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association (FARSHA) in Langley, British Columbia, says agriculture is one of the “slower industries” to implement health and safety programs. Unlike other employers operating within an industrial framework, a farm — especially one that is family-owned — “is a business place, but it is also their home,” he says.

The Alberta Center for Injury Control and Research reports an average of 18 farm-related fatalities in the province each year between 1990 and 2009 and 678 hospital admissions involving major trauma between 1996 and 2009.

So how do Alberta’s fatality rates compare with those of other provinces? “Alberta is in the middle of the pack,” says Don Voaklander, Ph.D., director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research in Edmonton and a collaborator on the study. “In Alberta, we typically run between 13 and 17 fatalities a year.”

But Dr. Voaklander stresses that comparing provincial numbers is not an accurate measure of farm safety in each region. “Some of the big-ticket items in farm fatalities are tractor rollovers. If you got slopey fields like they do in Eastern Canada as opposed to the prairies, you are comparing apples and oranges,” he says. Data from CAIR cite machinery work as one of the major causes of farm injuries and fatalities.

Part of the difficulty with analyzing the data coming out of Alberta is that aside from workers who are employed in greenhouse, mushroom, sod and nursery operations, workers’ compensation board (WCB) coverage is optional for those operating in other areas of the agriculture sector, such as on grain or animal farms. This means that work-related injuries and fatalities may go unreported.

“Being outside of the legislation and outside of WCB, we don’t always hear of all of the incidents and accidents that occur, or certainly don’t hear all of the details,” Eric Musekamp, president of the Farm Workers Union of Alberta, says from Winnifred, Alberta. The union was formed in 2004 to advocate for farm workers’ rights following the killing of Terry Rash, who was stabbed by his employer in 1999. Despite its name, the organization is not a labour union, since it is illegal for agricultural workers in Alberta to unionize.

Musekamp suggests that the lack of legislative requirements on employees and employers to act in any particular fashion “creates an unsafe climate overall.” Musekamp, who had legal standing at the public inquiry into Chandler’s death, believes that the confined space protocol under Part 5 of Alberta’s OHSA would have saved Chandler’s life.

“Under the legislation, there are steps you take to ensure that the atmosphere is breathable,” Musekamp says. “This particular employer was law-abiding. So if the law said you had to follow confined space protocol, they would have followed the confined space protocol,” he argues, adding that Tongue Creek Feeders has previously seen worker fatalities despite being one of the better farming operations.

Dissenting Voices

While putting the agricultural sector under the regulatory scrutiny of the OHSA and extending WCB coverage to the sector will boost workplace safety, there has been considerable pushback from farmers in Alberta against imposing any kind of legislation on businesses.

For instance, the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA), formerly the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers and the largest farm-producer organization in the province, objects to both mandatory WCB coverage and workplace health and safety regulations.

“We believe that we are a safe organization, that it is a lot of paperwork for a small number of employees that we have on our farms,” contends Humphrey Banack, vice-president of the AFA in Camrose, Alberta. “It should be the right of the farm business managers to choose which risk management profile best suits their employees’ coverage and their risk management.”

Although Banack claims that most AFA farms do not have paid employees, he acknowledges that the situation is changing. The 2011 Census of Agriculture confirms an 18 per cent increase in the number of large farms earning $500,000 or more in Alberta since the last census in 2006. While the 4,454 large farms represented only 10.3 per cent of all farms in the province, they accounted for 70.6 per cent of the total provincial gross farm receipts reported that year.

Similarly, Dr. Voaklander observes a trend of the increasing corporatization of farms. “If you look at the farm population in Canada and Alberta, the total farm population has dropped off significantly over the last 20 years, which would suggest that farms are getting larger,” he says.

The AFA, which has recently passed a motion that supports child labour regulations, argues the best way to improve farm safety is through education, especially among young people. “Through safety programs that the Alberta government and the AFA have managed and put forward, we have increased safety on our farms over the past years,” Banack says.

Behind the Idyll

Since 1995, Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR) — formerly known as the Canadian Agricultural Injury Surveillance Program — has been collecting data on farm injuries and fatalities across the country. In 2011, with the support of the government-funded Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, CAIR published its latest report, Fatalities in Canada 1990 to 2008. Some of the key findings are as follows:

• The agricultural fatality rate of 12.9 per 100,000 farm population (including non-workers) from 1990 to 2008 was higher than motor vehicle collision or suicide fatality rates in the general population.

• A whopping 92 per cent of farm fatalities were work-related; 85 per cent of the victims were working at the time of the incident.

• Almost half (47 per cent) of the fatalities involved farm owners or operators.

• Machines were involved in 70 per cent of agricultural fatalities, with the top five causes of agricultural fatalities being machine rollovers (20 per cent), machine runovers (18 per cent), machine entanglements (eight per cent), traffic collisions (seven per cent), and being pinned or struck by a machine (seven per cent).

• Males accounted for 92 per cent of those fatally injured as a result of agricultural work.

Contentious Content

Good intentions aside, some deem extending legislative protection to agricultural workers as a controversial proposition. Amonson, who sat on the FSAC, reports that the council did not recommend legislation because family farms opposed the idea, as they view it as cost prohibitive to employers who would be required to buy into a WCB program.

In her mind, exploring other options for the industry, such as private workers’ insurance and regulatory schemes that distinguish smaller producers from larger corporate enterprises, could address some of these concerns.

Indeed, the culture and mindset on family farms can be very different from those on large commercial operations. Historically, the government has not intervened in these family ventures. However, much of the industry today has been taken over by corporate enterprises in the form of industrial-scale farms with large workforces. The agriculture sector, which has ties to the government, has also successfully lobbied to keep the industry outside the confines of legislation.

While farmers in Alberta may opt for WCB coverage, not many choose to register their workers. Currently, 1,349 employers in the farming industry have WCB accounts, with 2,802 workers covered. Employers pay an average industry premium rate of $2.72 per $100 of insurable earnings.

That said, Amonson observes that the dynamics in the agriculture sector are changing, given the increase in the number of large farms and the need for the industry to keep up with the times. Amonson reports that while the WCFA works mainly with family farms, these operations are not necessarily small. “I think it is something within the industry that we are going to have to keep re-examining and not just saying this is the way it is,” she says of health and safety legislation.

Lawyer Kelly Nicholson, a partner at the Field Law firm in Calgary who represented Tongue Creek Feeders in the Chandler case, also believes that times are changing. “In Alberta, given the nature of the historical vision of the farm as a family place and coupled with the mobility of its workforce, it has made for a difficult fit between oh&s legislation and the farming industry,” Nicholson explains.

“And if that’s different now, if it’s not really a family-run industry for the most part, then it may be that the time has come for the government to consider extending the scope of oh&s legislation to the farming industry,” he adds.

Although one of the key arguments against mandatory WCB coverage and subjecting the farming industry to occupational health and safety standards is the burden that it would place on family farms, smaller operations would likely not be affected. Neither should it negatively affect their bottom line.

“It would affect larger employers rather than smaller employers,” says Johnson of FARSHA. He cites British Columbia as an example of a province that requires farms with fewer than 19 workers to have an informal workplace safety plan and a safety representative. As the number of workers diminishes, the employer is subject to even less stringent rules.

Johnson adds that bringing farm workers under the OHSA umbrella is unlikely to result in other operational impacts, such as a decrease in the number of temporary foreign workers. He estimates that about 4,000 migrant workers in British Columbia’s agricultural sector are covered by the same legislation that protects Canadian workers, and that these workers receive safety training materials in various languages.

In fact, Johnson believes that putting the agriculture sector under legislative purview would make it easier for employers to demonstrate due diligence. “If they are doing everything that they are supposed to be doing and an incident happened, then it would be fairly easy to demonstrate the due diligence and that they are looking after the workers.”

Protecting Guest Workers

Despite the regulations that Johnson says protect foreign workers in British Columbia, a report by West Coast Domestic Workers Association in Vancouver, Access to Justice for Migrant Workers in British Columbia, says the lack of job security often compels foreign workers to endure substandard work conditions and abuses for fear of not being ‘named’ by employers the following season. Under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, employees must be named by their employers in order to return to work in the country the following season.

The report cites a farm that did not provide running water for workers living on the premise. Instead, the workers had to use an outdoor hose in a neighbour’s home. “In the places we have contracts, the number one and number two bargaining proposals are clean drinking water and access to washroom facilities,” Yeager says, adding that the union has received one account of an employer spraying farm workers with pesticides.

Yeager surmises that one reason why some Albertans may be hesitant to support the inclusion of farm workers under workplace safety legislation and workers’ compensation is that they associate the issue with foreign workers. Canadian workers may view these foreigners as disposable or even fear that they are competing with them for domestic jobs. It is estimated that the number of temporary farm workers in the province hovers between 2,000 and 4,000.

Yeager notes that during Premier Alison Redford’s election campaign in 2011, she promised to protect farm workers through legislative changes. Instead, the government has chosen to focus solely on education and awareness. The Alberta Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is developing the FarmSafe Plan in cooperation with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, which started a pilot program early this year and plans to have it running by 2015.

“The farmers involved in our pilot program will attend a two-day workshop, where they will have the opportunity to develop their own safety plan with the support of safety advisors and a peer network,” says Erin McFarlane, public affairs officer with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Edmonton.

The program will take farmers through various aspects of farm safety, including management leadership and organizational commitment, hazard assessment, identification and control, ongoing inspections, qualifications, orientation and training, emergency response, incident investigation and program administration.

Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services is taking a cautious approach and is planning to meet with farm employers and employees to assess what impact the introduction of legislation might have on the industry.

“We are going to be going out and chatting with people to see how can we make sure the workers are safe. I won’t presuppose the outcome of that, but certainly the intent is to make sure that we have safe workers in agribusiness and in the commercial agriculture operations,” the minister’s press secretary Craig Loewen says from Edmonton.

As the farm industry becomes increasingly corporatized, Loewen says Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock and Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Verlyn Olson are meeting to figure out the appropriate “mix of education, prevention, but also regulation” that can be applied to the agriculture industry.

Changing Tide

It has been more than five years since Judge Barley put forward the recommendation that Alberta’s farm workers be protected by workplace safety regulations. Some advocates of legislative changes like Musekamp believe that the government is stalling.

“It is 100 per cent political,” Musekamp charges. “They used to publish a synopsis of what happened, you know of the circumstance [after a farm-related accident]. And they now refuse to do even that.”

In 2011, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development stopped posting the details following each workplace fatality, such as the age and gender of the farm worker, date and cause of death, opting instead to provide a summary of the raw statistics for the entire year. The department says this was done to respect the privacy of the families of those involved.

But the Farm Workers’ Union believes it was a response to requests for a fatality review into a double farm fatality made earlier that year by Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly David Swann, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Farm Workers Union. Since farming is not part of OHSA, no investigation was conducted into the incident. Currently, the last year for which information is publicly available on its website is 2012.

By and large, the agriculture sector across Canada has been slow in legislating health and safety standards. Ontario did not pass legislation until 2006, following considerable public pressure and a lengthy legal battle with the UFCW, while Prince Edward Island was the last province to follow suit in 2007, although WCB coverage in both provinces remains optional.

In 1993, the government in British Columbia introduced legislation and mandatory workers’ compensation, which included new regulations specific to the agriculture industry. At the same time, FARSHA was formed to provide safety training and support to farm employers and workers across the province. Johnson says the latest data indicate that injuries have decreased 40 per cent since those changes came into effect.

As for Alberta, it remains to be seen whether education alone will be enough to drive down farm-related injury and fatality rates. As farming becomes increasingly mechanized and the use of heavy machinery puts workers at greater risk, it may be time for the industry to change with the times.

Kids in Tow

One characteristic that is unique to the farming industry is the presence of children at the workplace.

“You don’t think of the farm industry in an industrial sort of way, but the machinery is big, powerful and dangerous just like machinery anywhere,” cautions Don Voaklander, Ph.D., director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research (ACICR) in Edmonton. For instance, a construction worker who brings a child to work would be sent home, “but that doesn’t happen on a farm,” he cites by way of example. Dr. Voaklander adds that the injury rates for farm children and other rural non-farm kids is about double that of urban children.

Figures from the ACICR indicate that between 1992 and 2009, which is the most recent data available for the province, the overall agricultural-related death rate of children in Alberta increased an average of 5.8 per cent annually. A total of 69 children died as a result of an agricultural injury, which equates to an average of four deaths each year.

“The overall crude death rate for children and youth was 8.1 deaths per 100,000 farm population,” the report Agricultural-Related Injuries in Alberta states. Runovers — with 21 fatalities being reported over the same time period — accounted for the leading cause of agricultural-related death involving children in Alberta.

Carmelle Wolfson is associate editor of OHS CANADA.

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