The passing of Bill 6, or the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, in Alberta’s legislature on December 10 has put an end to the province’s status as the only jurisdiction in Canada that exempted the agricultural sector from workplace-safety legislation.
Since January 1, paid, non-family employees on farms and ranches in Alberta have enjoyed the same basic oh&s protection that exists for agricultural workers in other provinces. Workers’ compensation board (WCB) coverage is also mandatory for these wage-earning workers, and employers have until April 30 to register with the board.
“WCB will work with farms and ranches to ensure that they are registered,” says John Archer, spokesperson with the Office of the Premier of Alberta in Edmonton.
Under the bill, employers must take reasonable steps to provide a safe and healthy workplace and workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. The bill also gives the provincial workplace-safety department the authority to investigate serious injuries and fatalities.
“Oh&s will be able to investigate in the event of an accident or fatality involving a wage-earning, non-family worker on a farm or ranch. Our goal is to prevent accidents and fatalities on farms and ranches; penalties are only used as a last resort for industries covered under oh&s,” Archer explains.
The bill does not cover the following: family farms that do not employ waged workers; relatives, neighbours and friends helping out on a family farm without pay; and children doing chores or participating in 4-H activities. Recreational activities, such as hunting on farmland, also fall beyond the purview of the Act.
“What Bill 6 does is bring Alberta farm and ranch safety standards in line with other provinces and ensure that if a wage-earning employee is injured or killed on the job, that person and their family have the same access to financial supports as employees in other sectors,” Oneil Carlier, Alberta Minister for Agriculture and Forestry, says in a statement.
The provincial government cites British Columbia as an example of a province where legislation has made the agricultural sector safer. Since British Columbia introduced laws to protect farm and ranch employees, the farm fatality rate had dropped by 68 per cent, while the rates for farm injury and serious injury decreased by 52 and 41 per cent respectively.
Same Bill, Different Views
Good intentions aside, not everyone is enamoured of this development. In response to the backlash against Bill 6 over concerns that it would affect family farms and their overall way of life, Alberta’s NDP Premier, Rachel Notley, posted an open letter on Facebook on December 4 to assuage these concerns.
Lori Sigurdson, Alberta Minister for Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, also clarifies in a statement that it is not the provincial government’s intention to interfere with how family farms operate. “Statutory protection of farm and ranch employees and the preservation of family-farm traditions are complementary goals of Bill 6,” Sigurdson says. “Our legislation allows us the flexibility to develop common-sense regulations to achieve this goal.”
According to information from the Alberta government, detailed oh&s technical standards specific to the farm and ranch industry will be developed or amended over the next 18 months. Employment standards and labour-relations codes will also be developed following consultations with industry.
“In the coming weeks, the government will consult with a range of stakeholders from the farm and ranch sector on how best to implement changes for oh&s, employment standards and labour relations,” Archer says. Areas that will be consulted on include the following: labour-relations code, employment-standards code; oh&s code; Oh&s: Best Practices for Safety within Existing Alberta Farming Operations; OHSA — Best Practices for Agriculture; and OHSA — Awareness, Education, Certification.
Gail Cumming, an advocate for injured workers with Adorn Consulting Inc. in Edmonton, is skeptical that Bill 6 will improve farm safety. She cites the incident involving three girls who suffocated after they were buried while playing in a truck loaded with canola seeds last October near Withrow, Alberta as a case in point. “That was a family farm; they wouldn’t have been covered under the WCB. They were kids playing in grain.”
She adds that the amount of injuries on farm and ranches are minimal compared to those in other industries. “That is why they have always been exempt.”
And when it comes to paid farm employees like seasonal or foreign farm workers, neither will this group of people benefit from the bill, Cumming suggests. “Coverage doesn’t mean they are entitled to benefits,” she says of seasonal foreign workers, who often get caught between the conflicting policies of the provincial and federal governments.
According to WCB policy, Cumming explains, a foreign worker who is injured on the job must take on modified work in Canada in order to be eligible for benefits. “If you have a foreign farm worker injured who cannot do his job, the federal government expects them to leave the country. That is a fact of law. So what benefit do these workers get?” she questions.
The Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA) in Lacombe, Alberta welcomes some of the changes in the proposed legislation, but thinks that more consultation and communication are needed. “The quick implementation schedule and unclear communication about the scope of this legislation has meant a significant learning curve for farmers. Their frustration was evident during the information meetings we attended,” the AFA notes in a statement issued on December 4.
The Federation also expresses concerns over the exclusion of unpaid farm workers and the removal of family, friends and neighbours from coverage. “Applying oh&s legislation only to operations with one or more paid workers means a majority of farm family fatalities/serious injuries would be exempt from investigation,” the statement notes, citing statistics from the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting showing that injuries and death are most frequent among owners, followed by family members and paid employees. With such coverage being left to the discretion of the farm owner, the AFA thinks that an extensive education campaign that clearly identifies the risks and benefits is warranted.
It also recommends deferring the implementation of the legislation to 2017 to give producers more time to familiarize themselves with its requirements and budget for it, considering that in many instances, salaries and working conditions have already been negotiated for the current year without producers taking into account the additional costs of the employment-standards legislation, thus putting producers at a disadvantage. It also highlights the need to differentiate between employment and farm chores and between paid farm employment and children learning how to farm through family activities.
For Cumming, it is education through agricultural associations — not legislation — that keeps farm workers safe. She also recommends that instead of offering employers rebates annually, the WCB should invest that money into farm-safety programs and equipment upgrades. “In other words, if they are giving a huge oil company $500 back in rebate[s] for the year, it is going into the employer’s coffers; that is not improving health and safety education,” she cites by way of example. “Put it into a safety program.”
The WCB acknowledges that the changes brought about by Bill 6 are significant and anticipates many questions from farm and ranch owners. “We are working with farm owners throughout the province to help them understand their responsibilities under the Workers’ Compensation Act. We know it is a change for them, and we are here to help them through the transition,” says Dayna Therien, Edmonton-based director of corporate communications with WCB Alberta.
The board has developed industry classifications that group farming businesses with similar operations and risks together. The new industry classifications and each industry’s premium rate for 2016, which ranges from $1.70 to $2.97 per $100 of insurable earnings, are available on the WCB’s website.
Cumming advises farm and ranch owners who are affected by the legislation to educate themselves about their entitlements and requirements of the bill. “They need to find somebody as a resource, a consultant,” Cumming says. “And they must know their rights and the process of sending people to medical facilities and establishing a claim.”
Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.