Progress has been made in getting the provincial government to adopt sensible, practical workplace safety rules for farms, but there’s still work to do, says the chair of the AgSafe Society of Alberta.
“There’s some language in the technical wording of the legislation that can be hard to explain and figure out how they practically apply on farms,” said Kent Erickson, who farms nears Irma and is past chair of Alberta Wheat.
Take, for example, the requirement under occupational health and safety rules that farm equipment be certified.
“Farmers are innovative by nature and a lot of the equipment we have now is the result of farmers taking equipment and adapting it to fit a specific job,” said Erickson. “The challenge we’re trying to figure out is whether or not adapted or modified equipment needs to be certified.
“And if that’s the case, is it practical, affordable? And is it really going to save lives or prevent injuries or just cause more financial burden?”
Legacy — a.k.a. ‘old’ — equipment could also require certification. That would be a financial burden, particularly for smaller farms, while not necessarily preventing accidents, said Erickson.
“A good example on my own farm is an older tractor that I’ve put on an auger. If it had to be certified by an engineer, it might not pass those certifications and yet it’s only used for a limited job. If we expect small farms to update all their equipment to newer equipment, that could be a financial burden without creating any safer farms.”
With most of the workplace safety provisions now law (either in the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act or other statutes), occupational health and safety has become a focus for the AgSafe Society. It’s been a long haul for the group, which evolved out of an unprecedented alliance of provincial farm groups called AgCoalition (short for the Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition), which was formed in January 2016.
Representatives from 29 farm groups created the coalition, and close to 30 producers volunteered on technical working groups that developed recommendations for employment standards, labour relations, and occupational health and safety regulations.
“There’s been an awful lot of people who have put in a lot of time,” said Erickson.
But more than two years on, their work continues.
“We’re hoping to get some focus groups together in March in different areas of the province, sit down and do some ‘what if’ scenarios with farmers because a lot of these recommendations need to be vetted through the ag community so they can understand and decide if they work for them or not,” said Erickson.
“Our goal is to bring all the existing producer programs together to set some guidelines and good safety practices that we can start to incorporate on the farm. We want to carry forward some practical guidelines that farmers can follow to satisfy the intent of the regulations that are coming out.”
Sensible, practical rules go hand in hand with making farms safer, he said.
“Our No. 1 goal is to save more lives and decrease the amount of injuries on our farms, and do that in a practical, cost-effective way.”
Gains being made
This clarification process isn’t new to the AgSafe Society and its predecessor group.
“Workers’ compensation has been a challenge,” said Erickson. “We’ve had some very good dialogue trying to get some of that legislation refined.”
For example, the original wording used the word ‘violence’ without clearly defining it, he said.
“Does violence mean an employee was killed as the result of a violent event with his employer? In actuality, the definition of violence in the legislation is animal violence. It’s specific to cow-calf or pig operations or feedlots — anywhere an employee can be injured in an altercation with an animal. When the public looks at that and it just says ‘violence,’ they would assume the worst.”
Confusion over terminology such as this has created difficulty in identifying accident trends on Alberta farms. Workers Compensation Board claims have increased since the introduction of the legislation but Erickson said that doesn’t necessarily mean there are more accidents on Alberta farms than there were prior to Bill 6 (the highly controversial legislation that created the new workplace safety statutes).
“I know accidents in our industry are, in general, higher than many other industries in Alberta,” said Ericksen. “But at the same time I’ve seen data that shows we have been getting better. I think a lot of that has to do with equipment, which over time has been getting safer.
“There are a lot more safety features on equipment so we have been able to bring our safety performance up already. However, we can still do better.”
That’s the goal of the AgSafe Alberta program, which is doing on-the-ground work with farmers to help make their operations safer. Advisers from the program are available to come out free of charge to farms and help producers develop on-farm safety plans. It also has safety material at www.agsafeab.ca.
Farmers should consider taking advantage of its services, said Erickson. The AgSafe Society took over operation of the program earlier this month.
“What happens is the adviser comes, sits down with you, asks why you want to do this, your reason for doing a farm safety review, how far you want to go with it, and tailor it to what your farm operation needs.”