Alberta-style farm safety legislation will ripple across Canada
The New Year is bound to bring a new focus on farm safety across Canada, based on what’s going on in Alberta right now.
In mid-November, the Alberta government brought forward a farm safety bill called The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (Bill 6).
It would result in farms and ranches being subject to Occupational Health and Safety legislation. It would also provide Workers’ Compensation Board insurance coverage so that workers can support their families if they are injured on the job, and protect farm and ranch owners against the impact of workplace injuries and illness. And finally, it would include farm and ranches in Employment Standards and Labour Relations legislation.
Some of these measures were to start as early as January 2016.
Many Alberta politicians were expecting the passage of the farm safety bill to be a slamdunk. After all, Albertans are still reeling from two separate incidents that had claimed young lives on farms there. Another tragedy occurred in Ontario, which may not have directly impacted Alberta -- but when people die on farms, headlines appear across the nation.
In any event, the new NDP government thinks it has a role in making farms there safer.
But many farmers (including many in other provinces) think agriculture is already legislated enough. If you follow the news, you’ll have seen photos or footage of Alberta farmers – 500 of them, in some cases -- protesting the government’s proposals outside the legislature in Edmonton and in rural communities.
Ultimately, after farmers pushed back hard, the province admitted it did a poor job of explaining the intent of the proposed legislation. It then decided to take its foot off the gas and consult with farmers, who maintain that farms can’t be lumped in with other sectors when it comes to safety legislation.
You may be familiar with the arguments the Alberta producers are putting forward. Despite protests, they’re not against farm safety. Many farms have farm safety plans. Farm safety associations are active in Alberta, as they are in all provinces. They offer training and courses for those willing to take them.
Rather, they are against what they say is the way legislation could change the culture of farming, and ignore some of the realities.
For example, a lot of farm family children work on the farm. Farmers, of course, don’t knowingly put them at risk. But Alberta farmers worry that provisions in the proposed Bill 6 would make it illegal for farm kids there to be active in the operation like they are now (even though the Alberta premier has said the bill is not intended to take away opportunities such as 4-H).
Farmers also say they have some unique needs when it comes to wage-earning or salaried workers. When a crop needs to be harvested, they have to work long hours to get it off. Otherwise, they’ll lose it or have it significantly devalued. Likewise, when a cow decides to calve, it’s not watching the clock.
No one, including the farmers themselves, suggest safety should be sacrificed.
But if legislation exists that says employees can only work eight-hour days, who then can farmers count on?
Society will have something to say about all this too. It won’t stand for the government totally backing down, as some farmers want it to. And I can foresee a time when farm safety is used as a marketing point: “This produce is grown on Canadian farms that are local, sustainable…and safe.” What Canadian wants to buy anything from people they think are putting their workers – or worse, their kids – in harm’s way.
There’s little doubt some form of the farm safety bill is going through this winter. Expect it to have some impact on the rest of the country, and more support from consumers than farmers think.