(Canadian OH&S News) — New statistics from the Workers’ Compensation Board of Alberta (WCB) have revealed a sharp increase in workers’ comp claims in the agriculture industry this year. The Board approved a total of 143 farming claims from Jan. 1 to July 2, 2015 — but that number shot up to 356 for the same period in 2016.
There has also been a substantial increase in agriculture employer accounts with the WCB since the beginning of this year, according to data obtained by COHSN. The Board had 1,754 farm employer accounts on Dec. 31, but has opened an additional 1,461 since then.
“There’s definitely a correlation, now that more farms have coverage,” said WCB spokesperson Dayna Therien. “So I don’t think you can read any trends into it in terms of more of them getting injured or anything. It’s just, more of them are covered now.”
Therien was referring to the mandatory workers’ compensation coverage that has been in effect for farms since the passing of Bill 6, or the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, on Dec. 10.
“I wouldn’t really want to comment or speculate on whether the bill is working,” said Therien. “All we know is the part that we’re playing in it, and we can certainly be happy that we know there are more workers we were able to help this year.”
In an e-mailed statement, Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray acknowledged the increase in WCB claims among farm and ranch workers, as well as in agricultural producers registering for coverage.
“I’m pleased that we’re making steady progress with WCB registrations and that more workers in this sector are accessing the medical and financial supports they need,” said Gray.
“Our government is working with farmers and ranchers to build a culture of safety… The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board provides no-fault insurance that protects farmers and ranchers in the event of a lawsuit, while providing workers with coverage in the event of an incident.”
Farmworkers Union of Alberta president Eric Musekamp saw the WCB’s numbers as a good sign of the Act’s effectiveness.
“At least 200 more people are being protected by WCB, as opposed to the same timeframe last year,” said Musekamp. “That’s substantial in itself.”
He clarified that the new statistics did not indicate whether Alberta farms are now safer, but maintained that Bill 6 would make agriculture safer in the long run “because we will be applying the same tools that are applied to other sectors: financial incentive, proper investigations, that sort of thing.”
Not everyone has a positive outlook on the numbers. Wildrose Party MLA Grant Hunter said in a media statement that the increase in WCB claims “cannot be read into without further information being provided.” Alberta Progressive Conservative agriculture critic Wayne Drysdale told the Calgary Herald on Aug. 1 that some claimants may be getting benefits for very minor injuries not worthy of compensation.
Musekamp conceded that a few workers would probably take advantage of the system, but added that this was no different from the situation in any other industry. “That’s just a red herring,” he said about Drysdale’s comments.
“Farm people, people who work on farms, people who own farms are human beings. We all have the human condition,” Musekamp added, noting that the system has checks and balances in place for malingerers.
“Probably there’ll be fewer in our sector,” he continued, referring to cheaters, “because of the very close proximity between workers and their bosses. So it would probably be harder to cheat because they know where you live.”
Of the 356 agriculture claims that the WCB approved in the first half of 2016, two of them were for fatalities and 147 involved time away from work. Ninety-two incidents occurred in feed lots, 46 involved hay, grain or crop farming and another 44 were on beef-producing farms.
In terms of injury types, 88 of the approved claims were for sprains or strains, 76 were for superficial wounds, 62 were for open wounds and 43 were for fractures, dislocation or nerve damage.
“The bottom line is, at least 200 claims have been approved over and above what would have happened in this timeframe last year,” said Musekamp. “So that’s 200 workers that have the piece of mind of being protected by WCB. The employers of these 200 workers have the piece of mind of knowing that they’re not subject to lawsuits. The public purse is off the hook for the medical expenses for these 200 workers.
“It’s a win-win-win.”