Alberta farm employee injury claims have more than doubled since workplace compensation coverage became mandatory for farms on Jan. 1, even though the number of workers being covered is only up by two-thirds.
During the first six months of the year, 395 claims were filed by farm workers and 356 claims were accepted by the Workers Compensation Board (WCB). During the same period in 2015, only 158 claims were filed and 143 claims were accepted.
But those figures should be viewed as a baseline — not an indication that the legislation has made farms safer, said the co-chair of the AgCoalition (Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition).
“The challenge with statistics is they’re only good if you have a complete set of statistics,” said Kent Erickson, who farms near Irma.
“Since (workplace compensation insurance) has been made mandatory across all farms, we’ve seen a drastic increase in farm claims — obviously, because farm participation in worker compensation is now mandatory. There’s an increased number of employees being covered and being reported accurately at their reporting place.”
The WCB had 1,754 accounts covering about 7,600 farm employees at the end of 2015. Since then, an additional 1,461 accounts covering about 5,125 employees have been registered. That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the actual number of farms in Alberta, but “any statistics are going to increase the understanding of where our farm injuries and fatalities are,” said Erickson.
“Any numbers that we can get on farm injuries and fatalities is going to be important. Because we’re seeing these increases in reportable injuries, we need to find out where the injuries are most prevalent and how we can manage that through education and programming to help decrease those injuries.”
But just because the number of reported injuries has gone up, that doesn’t mean farmers need more legislation and burdensome workplace rules, he added.
“What it does mean is that there is injuries on farms, so now let’s take those stats and find out where the injuries are happening the most and tailor programs to make sure we can decrease them,” said Erickson.
Of the 356 claims that were accepted in the first half of this year, 147 claims resulted in time away from work and two were fatalities. Feedlots topped the list for injury claims with 92 injury claims accepted. There have also been 88 strains or sprains, 76 superficial wounds, 62 open wounds, and 43 fractures, dislocations, or nerve damage injuries, along with 87 other injuries.
“We obviously want to have fewer injuries. That’s our No. 1 priority,” said Erickson. “But we want to encourage more reporting because if we get more reporting, then we’re going to be able to see where we can do better on our farms.”
Regulations being developed
While the WCB component of Bill 6 has clipped along during the first half of 2016, the government is still working on developing the regulations for the employment standards, labour relations, and occupational health and safety components of the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. The province has set up six working groups — which it calls “tables” — composed of farmers, industry experts, labour reps, farm employees, and others.
“The tables are progressing,” said Erickson, who sits on one of three occupational health and safety technical working groups. “It will be really interesting to see what the final report to government looks like and how these tables were able to figure out what’s going to be best.”
The employment standards and labour relations tables are “wrapping up,” he said, but occupational health and safety is going to need more work.
“My occupational health and safety table has been slow,” he said. “We’re only a quarter of the way through any sort of progress with that one.”
The tables held two-day meetings in the months of June, July, and August, with a break in September for harvest. The group will meet again in October, with the hope that some recommendations will be finalized by the end of the year.
“We’re a quarter done, but some of the stuff we got into at the very beginning will set the stage for some of the next stuff we’re doing,” said Erickson. “I think we can get a lot of things going these next final meetings.”
His group has been going through the legislation with a “fine-toothed comb,” he said.
“We’re just trying to get a feel of how any sort of legislation will work with farms. There has to be some flexibility, and we have to figure out how we’re going to do that.”
The big challenge at the occupational health and safety tables is finding a balance for small farms.
“Obviously, our No. 1 goal as farmers is to increase safety on our farms, but we have to be able to manage the costs, specifically on the small farms,” said Erickson.
“We’re just trying to find a balance right now. Maybe there’s an opportunity to have different requirements or different levels of compliance at that smaller number of employees, and we’re trying to figure out what that number is.”
But the tables are making “good headway,” and as work on the regulations wraps up, Erickson said he just hopes the provincial government “truly takes it seriously” when it develops the final draft of the regulations.
“For the most part, we’ve seen progress in the fact that farmers are truly able to offer good feedback, and I think there are going to be some good recommendations coming from these tables,” he said.
“From the producers’ standpoint, we’ve really come forward with some options and ideas that we felt would work for farmers, but I’m not sure if the government has the same end goal.”