Alberta farm workers will have similar rights and protections as other workers in Canada when final industry-specific technical rules governing farms take effect on December 1. Bill 6: Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act is, in many respects, a victory as it extended safety protections to Alberta’ waged, nonfamily farm and ranch workers who have remained outside the folds of oh&s law for the longest time ever.
But a closer look at the technical rules suggests back-pedalling that smacks of caving in to pressure from the farming community, which has been vocal about their opposition to the bill since it took effect on January 1, 2016.
Consider the following technical rules: Alberta farm workers should follow manufacturer’s specifications of old or existing equipment if available to identify safety hazards and observe proper maintenance and operational procedures; workers can be raised or lowered in front-end loader buckets if no other option is available; and seat belts should be used wherever possible.
It is hard to imagine similar exceptions being made to other regulated industries, in particular the discretionary approach to seat-belt use. And that begs the question: why is the farming industry seemingly treated with kid gloves?
The answers are as varied as they are complex. Farming is personal and a way of life passed down through generations. It is also a communal affair: kids are often roped in to undertake light farming duties and neighbours also help out. As such, any attempt to introduce regulatory enforcement in a tightly-knit, family-owned business is likely to be deemed intrusive and met with resistance.
Secondly, the rural and remote location of farms, which are often extensions of farmers’ private residences, likely contribute to their sense of autonomy and independence. Industry constraints like tight margins, high overheads and depressed commodity prices, coupled with Mother Nature’s unpredictability, can lead to the perception of safety regulations as an undue burden. In other words, Bill 6 is more than just another piece of legislation — it heralds a cultural shift that is not welcomed by the very people that the well-intended law seeks to protect.
Striking a balance between ensuring farm safety and preserving farming’s unique way of life has not been an easy feat for Alberta’s regulators. But make no mistake: farms are dangerous places in which to work and live. According to non-profit organization, The Farm Safety Centre in Raymond, Alberta, agriculture is Canada’s third most hazardous industry. Machine runovers (42 per cent) and drowning (15 per cent) are the most predominant causes of farm-related fatalities involving children aged fourteen and under. I know a farmer in Saskatchewan who lost her child back in the ‘50s when he got buried by snow that fell from the roof of a barn. Half a century down the road, the boy continues to be addressed lovingly as “Little George.”
The unique way of life on farms and ranches, while worthy of preservation within reasonable limits, should not trump health and safety. Statistics on farm-related injuries and fatalities demonstrate that safety oversight is necessary and way overdue. Teething problems aside, Bill 6 will channel resources and lead to heightened awareness that will ultimately benefit farmers and ranchers alike.