Opinion: An open letter to Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen

To be effective, farm safety education must be part of the regular curriculum in elementary schools

‘For years, I have written every minister of agriculture, education, and health — asking them to make farm safety education part of the elementary health and safety curriculum. Not one has shown any interest.’ – Marion Leithead
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Following your appointment as Alberta’s agriculture minister, you were praised for being “smart, grounded, and ‘a stand-up guy.’”

Let’s hope everything I’ve read about you will prove true.

But based on past experience, I am somewhat cynical, as I have asked your predecessors to take action on embedding effective farm safety within the elementary curricula… with no success.

I have been active in kids’ farm safety for more than two decades, since doing my master’s degree in 1997 at the University of Alberta (on Safety Awareness in Non-urban Pre-schoolers). During my years as farm safety co-ordinator with the Daysland and District Ag Society, we developed the Mic Safety Mouse kids’ farm safety program, which included five story booklets (plus fact and activity sheets, which can be accessed on the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association website.

After extensive fundraising, a class set of the Mic Safety booklets and the resource package (including puppets) were sent to every rural school division in the province. We also ran full-day pilot projects across Alberta, taking model tractors, the grain-flow wagon and a PTO demo, puppets, books, and puzzles, etc. out to schools and preschools, Hutterite colonies, ag societies, and other events.

It was a major effort to raise safety awareness and to save kids’ lives on Alberta farms.

Our Progressive Ag Safety Day involved up to 60 volunteers at ‘hands-on’ stations demonstrating farm hazards (including protecting your hearing; dangers of flowing grain; dangers of dugouts, electricity, and farm chemicals; safety rules for off-road vehicles and railway crossings, etc.). Using a jelly mould and raw eggs proved to be a very effective way to convince children to wear approved helmets.

Positive feedback was abundant. I recall a mom who lost her son in a PTO incident, but (when the scheduled volunteer phoned in sick) offered to fill in at the PTO-danger demo. The local implement dealer did this demonstration using a dummy getting caught in a PTO. So I quickly offered to relieve that mom, but she said she thought she “could handle it.” She spoke to those Grade 5 kids in a quiet voice, “We are teaching you this, so this won’t happen to you!” That class turned as silent as any chapel, and one brave girl responded while choking back tears, saying, “Thank you for telling us this.”

Farm safety days not only made an impact on the students, but also on their parents. One mother’s response was choosing to buy an off-road vehicle with a rollover bar, and insisting that all riders wear a helmet.

However, holding one safety day every two to five years does not have the lasting effects of a booster shot. Teachers have repeatedly stated that to be truly effective, farm safety education must be embedded within the curricula, so that the safety messages are repeated often.

So for years, I have written every minister of agriculture, education, and health — asking them to make farm safety education part of the elementary health and safety curriculum. Not one has shown any interest.

How many more kids have to die on Alberta farms before one of you will listen and do something meaningful about it? If action had been taken in 2009, maybe some of the 14 children who have died on Alberta farms since then, might be alive today.

The article in this paper said you would “fight for farmers.” Dare I believe you?

So I write to you and make the same plea I’ve made to your predecessors.

Your (promised) fight for farmers must also include Alberta’s farm children. They must be effectively taught how to be safe, and how to make safe decisions. This type of education has an impact — both on the children and their families.

Time and time again we have seen that farmers listen and act when their child or grandchild turns loving eyes on them, and conveys a “Please be safe!” message personally. One youngster at a Northlands safety demonstration turned to his grandpa farmer, and pleaded with him to wear safety goggles, saying, “You have to protect your old eyes too!” That grandfather didn’t hesitate a heartbeat as he donned those goggles and continued the demo with his grandchild.

I read that replacing Bill 6 is a priority for you. But it’s labour legislation that does absolutely nothing to keep anyone safe or prevent injuries/fatalities on the farm. It merely provides compensation “after” the incident.

To be effective, farm safety education must be embedded and implemented in the elementary school curriculum.

What we don’t need is having our political leaders shed tears after another farm kid has died in an accident that effective safety instruction could have prevented.

Marion Leithead

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