MLA says call for potato boycott wasn’t intended to hurt producers as report show child farm fatalities on the rise

By Meghan Potkins, Calgary Herald August 24, 2012

A Liberal MLA who called for a boycott of Alberta potatoes over concerns that child labour remains unregulated in the province says he has no desire to damage the livelihoods of growers, while a report suggests safety risks are on the rise for Alberta farm children.

David Swann earlier this week called on snack-food giant Frito Lay, a subsidiary of PespiCo., to boycott Alberta potatoes in a bid to pressure the province to extend workplace health and safety regulations to farm workers.

PepsiCo. said it will continue to honour its contracts with growers, as a new report reveals an increasing risk to the safety of children on Alberta farms.

A report released earlier this month from the Alberta Centre for Injury Control & Research showed the rate of agriculture-related deaths among children increased an average of 5.8 per cent annually between 1992 and 2009.

While the overall number of children living on farms decreased by more than 50 per cent in the past two decades, the rate at which children were killed on farms over the same period has increased.

A total of 69 children and youths were killed over the 18-year period, the majority of them between the ages of 5 and 9 years old.

A majority of the deaths were the result of a child being run over by a piece of farm equipment, typically tractors.

Drownings were the second most common manner of death.

Nearly twice as many children suffered major agriculture-related traumatic injuries over a shorter period — approximately 132 children were admitted to hospital with serious injuries between 1996 and 2009.

The statistics gathered by the centre do not indicate if the children were labourers or residents of the farm, or the type of farm where the incident occurred.

But the report’s authors suggest that the majority of fatalities involved children living on a farm who were not necessarily paid labourers.

Kathy Belton, co-chair of ACICR, said many farm deaths are preventable and that steps can be taken to make farms safer for children and adults.

Belton said an expansion of the province’s occupational health and safety laws to include agriculture workers is “essential” to making farms safer.

She said farming deaths and injuries must be investigated in the same way as other workplace incidents.

“If it’s an industrial (death), there is a full-blown investigation,” Belton said. “If it’s a farm death — if a farmer is out there digging an irrigation ditch and he dies — there is no investigation because there is no legislation.”

“We need to look at farming differently in this province.”

A spokesperson for the province said the ministers of agriculture and human services will discuss the report when they meet next month.

“Our government believes that education and awareness are still the most effective way to deal with the practical realities of Alberta farming. Minister Hancock has indicated that the government is looking at all aspects of agri-business and agri-industry to determine if we have the right regulations, or whether we need to change regulations with respect to worker safety, worker compensation or other occupational health and safety standards,” Cathy Housdorff, a spokesperson for the department of agriculture, said in an e-mail.

“The two ministers will be discussing the report as well as other items when they meet next month.”

In an open letter to producers, Swann said the point of the boycott was not to hurt growers but to pressure the government.

The Calgary MLA admits he received complaints from farmers about the boycott.

“I’m not trying to damage our agriculture industry. I’m trying to get the attention of government,” he said.

There were 16 agriculture-related deaths in 2011. Two were children, according to the province.

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