Thomson: Redford lagging on farm safety

By Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journal April 27, 2013

Sunday is National Day of Mourning, a day set aside to remember workers killed or injured on the job.

You might not give it a second thought, especially if your work isn’t particularly risky.

However, imagine you had one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, one with so many hazards you could die from a disturbingly long list of mishaps including strangulation, electrocution, asphyxiation and traumatic amputation.

Now imagine you had no right to know details of the hazards and no right to refuse work you thought unsafe. In fact, you are not covered by Alberta’s occupational health and safety laws that protect just about every other worker in the province.

Finally, imagine that Premier Alison Redford has been promising for 20 months to get you that protection but still hasn’t actually done so.

If you can do that, you can imagine what it’s like to be a paid farm worker in Alberta.

Farm workers are excluded from health and safety laws that not only protect workers from hazardous work but govern hours of work, overtime pay and vacation pay. If they’re injured on the job and their employer hasn’t voluntarily covered them under the Workers’ Compensation Board, their only recourse is to launch a lawsuit.

Every other province offers coverage, except Alberta.

Over the past three decades, more than 350 Alberta farm workers have been killed and more than 670 seriously injured. In 2012, 10 people died on Alberta farms, a relatively low number compared with the 16 in 2011 and the 22 in 2010. But in any given year, Alberta usually has more farm fatalities than its Prairie neighbours.

Up until 2010, the provincial government filed reports revealing the age and gender of each victim along with when the accident happened and how. “Victim was removing grain auger from bin, auger came into contact with a power line and victim was electrocuted,” reads a typically terse account from March 2010.

However, in 2011, the government stopped providing details, opting simply to release the overall number of deaths and a few statistics. Officials said they were trying to protect the privacy of victims’ families; critics complained the government was trying to hide the scope of the issue.

It’s not as if the government doesn’t know there’s a problem.

In December 2008, a provincial court judge reviewing the asphyxiation death of a farm worker in a grain silo issued this blunt conclusion: “No logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm employees.”

In 2011, during the Progressive Conservative leadership race, Redford promised to expand the law. “We have to have farm workers protected,” she said. “Hired employees on farms are entitled to that protection.”

Yet the government under Redford has done nothing to change the law to ensure Alberta’s farm workers enjoy the same workplace protection offered to farm workers in every other province.

“We’re going to put in place the right approaches at the right time,” is how Redford answers questions on the matter, but she refuses to say when that “right time” will be.

Human Services Minister Dave Hancock says he is working with Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson to come up with ways to improve farm worker safety, but those improvements might only include more safety education for workers, as opposed to actual legislation.

“At the end of the day it’s outcomes that matter, it’s how do we ensure that we have fewer injured Albertans or no injured Albertans on the farm or otherwise?” says Hancock. “And we won’t just get that by bringing in a piece of legislation.”

If you follow that logic, there’s no need to have any workers anywhere covered by health and safety laws. The fact is every province recognizes a health and safety benefit in covering its workers, including those on the farm. Alberta recognizes a health and safety benefit for working Albertans, too, except for those working on a farm.

The political fact is the Alberta government is afraid changing the law will somehow damage the family farm, or at least damage the government’s rural voting base.

However, by not taking action, the government is allowing large commercial farm operations to escape responsibility.

Don Voaklander, director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, says large feedlots are no different than other companies, such as oil companies, that are covered by health and safety laws. “The agrarian myth of the rugged family farm just doesn’t apply,” says Voaklander.

As a compromise, the government could pass a law that protects workers on industrial farms but excludes unpaid workers, such as family members on small family-run operations, as is done in some other jurisdictions.

This is an issue that obviously resonates more in rural Alberta than in urban centres, but Liberal MLA David Swann, who’s been on something of a one-man campaign to protect farm workers, says it should resonate with everybody. “Albertans think that we are producing our food ethically but that’s a false assumption.”

It’s something worth thinking about, not just tomorrow but every day until Redford fulfils her promise to farm workers.

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