(Canadian OH&S News) — New information from Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) has revealed that it investigated 25 deaths related to agriculture in 2014, of which 20 were owners, operators, owners’ family members or employees of their respective farms.
The preliminary data also show that nine of the fatalities were machinery-related, meaning that the victims were caught in, crushed by or struck by mechanical farm equipment or that they fell from it, collided with other objects while operating it or were involved in rollovers. Animal-related deaths, falls from heights and crushes by hay bales each accounted for three deaths.
In addition, three of the 25 recorded victims were visitors to the farms, while two were uninvolved with them.
Brookes Merritt, spokesperson for Alta.’s Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, confirmed that the numbers were official, albeit preliminary.
“They are the numbers that were forwarded from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to Alberta’s farm-safety team,” Merritt told COHSN. “It remains preliminary, so they’re kind of looking at the numbers before, I suppose, they finalize it, in whatever capacity they do that.”
“It’s kind of shocking,” said Siobhán Vipond, secretary treasurer for the Alberta Federation of Labour, about the OCME statistics. “There’s lots of dangerous work happening on here, and many farms are multimillion-dollar businesses. So let’s start looking at this like an industry, and let’s start seeing some standards.”
Alberta remains the only Canadian province in which occupational health and safety legislation doesn’t cover agriculture, Vipond added. “Does that play a role? Well, it could, because the idea that you would lose a job is sometimes a burden that people can’t go towards. That’s too much of a burden. So people may be doing unsafe work because they’re not protected.
“I don’t know how many people have to die for people to think this is serious,” she said. “These are lots of workers, and it’s shameful how they’re being treated.”
Farmworkers Union of Alberta president Eric Musekamp called OCME’s revelations a “pretty dreadful situation,” adding that the number of fatalities was an increase of more than 50 per cent from 2013.
“We have very poor reporting in Alberta, so these numbers are probably low,” said Musekamp. Because of the lack of oh&s coverage, “there’s no proper investigation,” he explained. “There’s only a voluntary record-keeping system in the province, and 40-to-45 per cent of hospitals don’t actually record agricultural incidents as such.”
Musekamp added that OCME’s tally “does not include motor-vehicle accidents or industrial diseases, like in ordinary industries, where cancers and all that sort of stuff is tracked under workplace fatalities.”
Merritt conceded that the 2014 numbers were an increase from the previous year. “Having said that, if you look back over the historical data, those numbers do change from year to year, and we have seen fluctuations like that in the past,” he added. “And it’s not particularly attributed to anything other than just circumstance.”
Additional 2014 statistics revealed by OCME:
- Twenty-two of the 25 victims were men;
- Two of them were under the age of 18, while 12 were older than 65;
- Seventeen of the fatalities occurred in rural areas north of Red Deer; and
- In 13 cases, the death occurred at the scene of the incident, and in 20, the victim died within 24 hours.
Musekamp criticized the provincial government for its lack of helpful action on farming safety. “It’s on the election front now. We’re trying to pose it to the various candidates,” he said about the issue of oh&s coverage for farm workers. “The Conservative party won’t take a position or are opposed to change, and the progressive parties, the Liberals and New Democrats, are full-square in favour of equality for farm workers.”
Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice announced last fall that he would consider extending oh&s legislation to large-scale farms, but wanted to see more research on the problem before committing. “I can’t comment on policy direction,” Merritt said when asked about the government’s plans on farm safety.
“He’s not the first premier to make promises on this file,” said Vipond. “I don’t think there’s political will to do it. I think we’re hearing a lot of great lies. We heard Alison Redford also say that she was going to deal with this, and she had time to and she didn’t.”
“It looks like he’s going to concede and capitulate like all the rest,” said Musekamp, referring to Prentice, “and ignore the science, the facts, the data, the empirical evidence, the experience of others and all of that.
“It’s a crisis. Twenty-five, 50-something per cent increase, and we’re doing nothing.”