Over the objections of its farmer members, a committee has recommended the province make seatbelt use mandatory in tractors, combines, and other farm equipment.
Forcing farmers to buckle up is just one — although likely the most controversial — of 142 recommendations from four “technical working groups” established to turn Bill 6 into actual occupational health and safety (OH&S) rules on Alberta farms.
There was a lot of agreement on which parts of the OH&S rulebook should apply to farms, but there were also some key disagreements, said Kent Erickson, a member of one of the working groups and co-chair of AgCoalition (Alberta Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition).
“I’m not against regulation,” he said. “But if it’s going to cost us more, we have to make sure we’re getting back increased farm safety, not just a regulatory burden.”
And that was exactly the argument made against mandatory use of seatbelts.
The report of that working group notes some of its members view wearing seatbelts as “impractical, inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unwarranted.” The report doesn’t detail the debate, but the farmers on that group appear to have unsuccessfully argued that seatbelts don’t make sense in the everyday world of farming.
“The reason for this is that farm equipment in open fields is travelling very slowly and farmers are multi-tasking — primarily monitoring equipment that is being pulled behind tractors,” the report says of the “considerations” taken into account.
“Up to 80 per cent of the time, the farmer is turned in the seat facing backwards. It is not uncommon for farmers to be operating equipment in this way many hours at a time.”
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The committee considered a recommendation to just require seatbelt use when on roads or when on terrain that is “susceptible to rollover.”
Nevertheless, the majority voted for mandatory seatbelt use all the time, saying they have been shown to save lives, their use in cars is now widespread, and if required in farm equipment, it will “force innovation” on equipment manufacturers and make them come up with restraints that are “practical (and) comfortable.”
Erickson wasn’t on the committee that came up with that recommendation, but has his own example of a recommended rule that doesn’t make sense in real life — logbooks.
The recommendation is to make producers carry logbooks in farm equipment that operators can show to an inspector to prove they’re compliant with OH&S regulations, including regulations around hours of work.
“We see in the trucking industry that there’s duplicate logbooks in trucks — it happens all the time,” said Erickson, who farms near Irma.
“If and when they do get stopped, they have a ‘legal’ logbook, and our industry doesn’t want that. We don’t want to see any regulations that just automatically push farmers and ranchers to break the law.”
Lots of reading
The province said it waited until harvest was mostly over before releasing the recommendations. The public has 11 weeks (until Jan. 15) to offer its views.
“Since receiving the reports, government has been reviewing the recommendations, and we now look forward to hearing directly from Albertans on what they think,” said Labour Minister Christina Gray.
“We encourage all Albertans — whether they’re involved directly in farming and ranching, or whether they go to farmers’ markets — to go online and provide their feedback on these reports.”
Opening the consultation to the general public “is going to be a challenge,” said Erickson.
“Relating it to how it’s going to work on the farm is really tough for somebody who isn’t in the industry,” he said. “It would be kind of like asking me to comment on a regulation that’s going to affect, say, a coal mine. I don’t have any insights into how a coal mine is run.
“So I’m a little concerned that the responses we might get may be a bit uninformed because people don’t understand how things work on the farm.”
The sheer number of recommendations — 142 in all — and the technical language of the reports will be another hill to climb for people providing their feedback.
“Making sure you have the OH&S code while reviewing potential changes to the code is going to be an important part of reviewing this work,” advised Gray.
That’s not practical for most Albertans, said Erickson.
“Our group took half the code and we broke it down line by line as we went through it, and even I was confused and misinterpretin
g and misunderstanding how we’re going to apply that to a farm. It’s really tricky,” he said, noting his group had over a year to review the material.
“For a farmer, it’s going to be a challenge. There’s a lot of nuances and a lot of wording in the code that is hard to interpret on a farm.”
While the technical working groups covered everything from education, training, and current best practices, the real meat and potatoes is in applying the safety code to Alberta farms.
In many cases, the groups were able to do that with no or only minor wording changes, said Erickson.
“There was consensus on a lot of parts, but we also made a lot of changes,” he said. “So a lot of the consensus was on the changes. We didn’t agree to OH&S verbatim.”
But there were also about 20 recommendations where the groups were not able to reach consensus, “and those are some pretty big ones.”
“We want to analyze it and ask, ‘Is it creating an issue?’ If it is, we want to fix it, but if it isn’t, why put a regulation in place that’s just going to cost people money?” said Erickson.
Other recommendations — including retrofitted rollover protection on older equipment, fall arrest systems on bins, and requiring independent engineering for certification of equipment and machinery repairs — underscore ongoing concerns about cost and practicality.
And how the government eventually implements those provisions will be the difference between compliance and non-compliance for the agriculture industry.
“The OH&S code book is intense,” said Erickson. “If you just throw that in any industry’s face and say, ‘You have to meet every single code to the letter,’ they’re just going to throw it back at you.”
That’s why it’s critical — despite the challenges — for farmers to sit down with these reports and share their views, Erickson added.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of public feedback from people who don’t understand our industry very well,” he said. “So because we understand our industry, it’s very important for farmers and their workers to pick some big issues and go through them.
“Hopefully we can build some farm- and ranch-specific wording and requirements — just like other industries have — to make it work for farms and ranches.”
The government will continue to review the recommendations, said Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier.
“A great deal of work has been done, but a great deal remains,” he said.
AgCoalition will remain heavily involved.
“We’ve had a very good dialogue with the Ministry of Labour. Our dialogue has been very open. But what happens next is going to be key,” said Erickson. “Hopefully we can be part of that very deliberate process.”
The full reports can be found at the Alberta Government website (search for ‘farm and ranch’).