Farm workers feeling safer, but the fight for rights isn't over

 Photo: Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers' Union of Alberta

By Terry Inigo-Jones
HSAA Communications

The death of a man working at a hay plant near Cremona last week (August 16) is tragic proof that farm work continues to be a dangerous occupation in Alberta.

RCMP said preliminary investigation suggested the 63-year-old from Olds was operating equipment when he was fatally injured.

Deaths in agriculture are nothing new. Each year, about 18-20 people die in a work-related accidents on Alberta farms, according to an internal government report obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).

This time, however, there is a difference. This time, the death of the worker is being investigated by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) officers. Since Alberta’s NDP government passed Bill 6, The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, accidents are examined and lessons may be learned that can prevent future accidents.

For all the political uproar and divisive debate over farm-safety legislation, one fact stands out: farm workers are better off now than before the bill was passed in late 2015.

“Yes, there have been changes,” says Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers’ Union of Alberta (FUA) and director of the Alberta Farmworker Service Centre. “They (farm workers) have presumptive Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) coverage, so there’s been an uptick in the number of farm workers that have received WCB benefits comparted to prior to Bill 6.”

Dr. Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, says that on Dec. 31, 2015, there were 1,756 agriculture accounts covering 7,598 workers. Year-to-date figures for this year show 3,881 accounts covering 13,086 workers, nearly doubling the number of workers who now have some protection if they suffer an accident at work.

With the AFL reporting that about 4,000 farm work-related injuries occurring each year, that WCB coverage will make a significant difference to many of the Alberta workers who put the food on our tables and help drive our economy.

“While WCB is not a perfect system, it provides universal coverage, which was not the case before Bill 6, and better benefits than private insurance when workers are seriously injured or killed,” says Barnetson.

While it’s too early in the year – and with the busy harvest season yet to come – to have statistics on whether accident and injury numbers are down, Musekamp says he’s hopeful that we’ll see fewer accidents this year.

“It appears there may be fewer accidents happening. … We’ve got a pretty good ear on what’s going on out there. The feedback we’re getting is that people are paying attention (to safety).”

Meanwhile, farm workers now have the right to be informed of hazards and can refuse to do unsafe work.

“On the field and in the tractor today, the farm worker is considerably better off than he was prior to Bill 6, that’s for sure,” says Musekamp.

Despite the improvements for farm workers, the fight for their basic human rights isn’t over. Musekamp and Barnetson point to the government’s recent exemption of paid farm workers from new employment standards dealing with hours of work, rest periods and overtime in Bill 17, The Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.

“Farm workers and farmers are not different … from everybody else. We’re all people. …To single out agriculture for this differential treatment just doesn’t add up,” says Musekamp.

On June 29, 2017, the Alberta government released a report by Judge Anne Brown resulting from the public fatality inquiry into the 2014 death of paid farm worker Stephen Murray Gibson on a farm in Cochrane. The report said that Gibson had been working 28 days straight when his clothing was caught in an unguarded power take-off, drawing him into an augur and resulting in his death.

“Fatigue is a significant safety hazard in the workplace,” says Barnetson. “You wouldn’t get on a bus driven by someone who had worked 16 hours a day for 23 straight days with no real rest breaks – because you know that person is fatigue-impaired. But apparently it is cool with the government if that person is driving a combine or hauling grain down the road.

“Hopefully, the government will rethink and minimize farm exceptions to OHS rules. There is no compelling reason farm workers, or the general public, should be exposed to higher risks in order to minimize operating costs for farm owners. If a farmer can’t afford to operate safely, then that farm likely shouldn’t be in business,” he says.

Musekamp says the FUA is calling on the government to remove the farm and ranch exemption from Bill 17 and to implement the judges’ recommendations for compulsory farm-safety training and annual certification of farm equipment. HSAA has written to the ministers of agriculture and forestry, labour and justice to make the same request.