Farm safety consultations get mixed reviews

AgCoalition is hopeful, safety expert is pleased, but at least one farm group says the entire process is another ‘slap in the face’

Farmer walking toward combine.
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Take your pick: The Alberta government’s approach to consultations on workplace safety regulations are a “sham,” possibly OK, or just what’s needed.

The provincial government has set up six working groups — each with 12 members plus an independent chair — to develop workplace safety rules on farms and ranches. Of the 78 members, 23 are producers recommended by the AgCoalition (Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition), an unprecedented alliance of 30 provincial farm organizations.

That’s not enough farmers, said the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, which issued a news release calling the consultation process “a sham of a process that’s never been, and never will be, about farm safety — it’s clearly a Big Labour play, and nothing more.”

AgCoalition members shouldn’t trust the NDP government, said Stephen Vandervalk, the organization’s vice-president.

Stephen Vandervalk
Stephen Vandervalk

“The AgCoalition believes that it can work with government even though every decision is a slap in the face,” said Vandervalk, a grain and oilseed farmer from Fort Macleod. “I’m not saying that the AgCoalition needs to pack up its tents and leave today. But at some point, if it doesn’t change what’s going on here, it’s going to have to say that it’s not going to be a part of this.”

But the co-chair of the AgCoalition said her group’s members want to see how the process plays out.

Page Stuart
Page Stuart

“We’ve communicated to government since the coalition formed that producers have concerns and there does appear to be a growing awareness among the provincial government that there is a profound uniqueness to agricultural production,” said Page Stuart, past chair of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association. “Regulations need to be outcome based to be effective, but at the end of the day, neither regulations or legislations will drive change, and it’s not going to result in a culture of safety.

“It’s really awareness and education which will improve the industry. In my mind, that’s where the long-term emphasis should be — by both the industry and the provincial government.”

AgCoalition will also push ahead with its own consultations with farmers, ranchers, and their employees even as the working groups begin their work (which is scheduled to start this month and could extend into 2017).

“When we have those meetings, the content will reflect the conversations at the consultation table, so they’ll be very direct and focused,” said Stuart.

But Vandervalk is concerned because there is no end date to the process and all members of the province’s working groups will receive large per diems (up to $1,000 a day for chairs and up to $427 daily for members).

“This will cost millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “The deck is stacked against agriculture. The government has said that if it doesn’t like the outcome, it will go and make changes based on what it feels is best and not even listen to what the working group has to say.”

Labour input

Vandervalk is also unhappy because all of the chairs of the working groups have labour connections. (There are also at least nine members of unions and other labour organizations on the six groups.)

But having people with a labour background is a good thing, said Don Voaklander, director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta and professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

Don Voaklander
Don Voaklander

“They’ve got the experience with the codes and the way that everything is written for other industries, so it’s kind of essential that they’re there,” said Voaklander, who sits on the group dealing with best practices for farm safety.

“There’s never been any rules applied to occupational health on farms in Alberta. So everybody is starting from zero here. It’s important to have input from a variety of commodity groups and agricultural situations to make something that will work and save peoples’ lives.”

Having input from people with diverse backgrounds may help the agricultural community understand problems that they may not be aware of, he said.

“I think having the labour people there will help bring the industry closer together so it is meaningful to everyone,” he said. “This government is more oriented towards labour than the previous government, but I don’t think that that is the underlying interest here.”

He noted Alberta is the last province to implement Occupational Health and Safety regulations for agriculture.

“For a long time, people have been unprotected in Alberta,” he said. “It’s not so much about the family farm. There are a whole bunch of excluded industries here — like the feedlot industry. This will give protection to people who do farm work for their livelihood and give some guidelines for employers to keep their staff happy and at their job. It will also help people, if they get injured, to have some support while they get better.”

Everyone on the working groups will be committed to ensuring regulations are sensible, he predicted.

“No one in labour wants to enforce an unworkable legislative structure,” said Voaklander, who grew up on a farm and has been involved in farm injury surveillance for 15 years. “In my experience, labour really wants industry to do a lot of the policing itself. And it wants to assist the industry in becoming safer.”

Stuart is also optimistic.

“In agriculture, we’re often left on our own, which we sometimes really like,” she said. “But sometimes, if we have other people involved in the conversation — if they are constructive, working towards positive outcomes, and working toward allowing us to maintain our competitiveness in producing food — to me, that’s a win-win opportunity.”

The government’s background information on the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act and the full list of the six working groups can be found at alberta.ca/farm-and-ranch-wcb.cfm.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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