Farmers against farm safety in Alberta

Tractor-roll-overBy Bob Barnetson

Over the summer, there were encouraging signs that Alberta’s New Democratic government was going to provide Alberta farm workers with basic workplace rights, such as the right to refuse unsafe work. The details remain sketchy (the NDP inherited a pretty full plate of problems!) but one report suggests farms will become subject to the occupational health and safety regime effective in 2017.

The farm lobby has long resisted being subject to OHS rules, arguing that farms are somehow special because most (at least 96% in 2011) are owned by families. The relevance of ownership is hard to see. The family farm argument mostly looks like a red herring designed to evoke a ma-and-pa-on-the-prairie (who couldn’t possible comply with complicated regulations) image of Alberta agriculturalists.

Let’s look at some facts about farm employment (drawn from Alberta tallies in the 2011 agricultural census), shall we?

In 2011, Alberta farms of 1120 acres or more employed 52.9% of all paid workers and were responsible for nearly 60% of all weeks of paid farm work even though they comprise only 26.4% of all farms. Farms of at least 2880 acres comprised only 8.9% of all farms in Alberta yet they employed 28.9% of paid workers and were responsible for 37.6% of weeks of paid work.

Farms that are two sections (1280 acres) or more in size are hardly traditional ma-and-pa-homesteading-a-quarter-section-with-a-horse-and-a-plow operations. Rather they are highly capitalized operations that comply with all manner of other regulations. Looking at the finances of these so-called family farms also suggests that those hiring help can afford to comply with workplace regulation.

In terms of annual revenues, farms with gross annual receipts above $250,000 comprised 20.0% of farms. Yet these farms employed 67.3% of all paid workers and accounted for 81.2% of all weeks of paid work. Those farms with at least $2 million in annual gross receipts comprised only 1.8% of farms, yet employed 21.5% of paid worker and accounted for 33.0% of weeks of paid work. These farms employed an average of 10.4 workers each.

This seems to put to rest any notion that so-called family farms somehow can’t afford to comply with regulations. Those farms that employ the majority of Alberta farm workers are financially large operations. If their profit margins are so small that they can’t afford to adequately protect their workers, then those operations are not financial viable and should close. We shouldn’t subsidize these operations by allowing them to operate unsafely.

Alberta’s Wheat Commission (basically a farm lobby group for grain farmers) is advancing the argument that farmers know what will work on their farms around health and safety and that training and education is the way to go:

“As is the case with every safety measure, we believe that education and training are the most critical aspects of developing a program that will work,” said Alberta Pulse Growers Commission chair Allison Ammeter. “Farmers are the subject matter experts on what will be most effective for their farm, and we look forward to sharing that expertise with the Government of Alberta.”

This is, rather obviously, self-serving bullshit.

If farmers knew how to prevent injuries and were motivated to do so, then agriculture would not be one of the three most dangerous occupations in Canada.

And, if education and training prevented injuries (an assertion the Progressive Conservative government pushed for years in an effort to avoid regulating farms), then farm injuries would have gone down given we’ve been doing farm safety for decades.

The ineffectiveness of farm safety efforts Alberta is hard to see because the government failed to track this data (how convenient!). But we can look to research in Saskatchewan for evidence that education has no meaningful effect on farm injury rates.

An important reason that education does not work is that education does not require farmers to take any action to identify and control workplace hazards. Only regulation does that.

Installing roll bars on tractors, for example, is expensive and farmers likely prefer not to spend the money. We don’t accept this attitude from any other group of employers and we shouldn’t accept it from farmers (no matter how much we may like them and value their work).

The bottom line is that all employees deserve the same workplace protections. And the government should step up and ensure farm workers have these rights now, not some watered-down version of these rights in frigging 2017.

This piece originally appeared on the blog Labour & Employment in Alberta

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5 thoughts on “Farmers against farm safety in Alberta

  1. Good assessment of the situation, Bob!

    If memory serves, there were 25 reported farm fatalities last year in Alberta—if WCB and OHS tracked this stat the way they do every other industry, it would be far and away the deadliest industry in the province. And that’s assuming the numbers are accurate (they are almost certainly low since there is no required reporting mechanism in place).

    Any number of studies have shown that the return on investment for safety is at least 200%, with some studies indicating that it is as high as 600%. Mom and pop farms who are crying poor could easily boost their profit margin by employing an effective safety program that keeps them and their children out of the hospital and their equipment operating. No matter how you come at this issue, it’s a no-brainer. Farms need to be held to the same safety standards as every other business in the province.

  2. Union attitude leftwing bullshit from a writer with no understanding of the ag industry or farming. That much is obvious. People who have never been on a farm and do not understand ag should not be legislating those that do- that goes for any industry. Furthermore, this bill is being rammed through with no farm consultation until the end of the process. It appears to be going through and quickly regardless of what we say. Where are our freedoms? Do we have to shut our combines down in the evening because of a labor rule that says we have to quit after 8 hours a day? Who pays for the lost revenue when it snows or rains the next day on that crop……Seek to understand before you continue to destroy industries NDP and union flunkies you are ruining this province and quickly.

  3. What a misleading title. farmers are against farm safety. Do you really believe this? Did you ask a farmer or rancher if he was against safety? I’m guessing no.

    Farm labour laws are being amended to “protect all employees paid and unpaid” including child labour rules. It includes rules for ages 12-15 and 16-18. Ergo, children under 12 are not allowed to work on farm whether paid or unpaid. OH&S will have authority over all farms.

    Do you think my 8 year old is in danger when he gathers eggs from our chickens or helps fork hay to our steers? Are you really in favour of limiting my husband’s work day to 12 hours when the wheat is ripe and needs to be harvested? Oops, and the cows got out and the fence needs repairing, should he do it now or does he have to call someone in to fix it because he’s worked his 12 hours for the day?

    Our whole family is involved with our farm, from my 78 year old dad to our 8 year old son. Of course we take safety seriously.

    The most dangerous place to be is not on a farm in Alberta, I’d say the most dangerous place would be is in the Foster Care System.

    Bill 6 needs some tweaking.

  4. I am in complete agreement with the two previous comments. I just need to add the following information to inform Bob the author of this article; who likes throughing out facts. Since Manitoba has implemented their inclusion of Farmers in their Workplace Safety and Health Act the number of fatalities on farms have not declined! 1995 to 2009 was average 5 fatalities per year. 2010 to 2012 (post regulation) 16 deaths equals 5 deaths/year; legislation doesn’t make a difference either. This suggests that OH&S is merely an investigative and reporting tool for the government.

  5. “This seems to put to rest any notion that so-called family farms somehow can’t afford to comply with regulations”

    How one side can you be? How can you throw out Revenue facts, without even bring up the notion of expenditures and report that as the whole story.

    Yes, Agriculture revenues on paper look extremely well, that ever farmer should be put in the rankings of a Donald Trump or Bill Gates. However, if you consider the massive expenses farms pay to bring out that type of revenue is astronomical. One Combine (for you that are uneducated is that is the thingy that harvest the grain that is used for to make your daily toast among other things). can cost between $500,000 to $750,000, more then a full size house in most Cities. Most farms with significant Revenue like you are talking have more than a few to be able to get the crop off as quick as they can before the winter comes in and destroys what is left.

    And that is only one piece of equipment. You need TRACTORS to pull the SEEDERS to plant the crop. SPRAYERS to control weeds. WINDOWERS to swath the crop and some have FORAGE HARVESTERS to harvest silage. RESIDUE TILLAGE to prepare next crop. Each one of those pieces of equipment cost around $250,000 each. You also need storage equipment to store the grain until it gets to market. Trucks to move equipment and the crop plus many more items to purchase and MAINTAIN!!!. Now those are depreciated fixed costs that are needed, but they do not include the thousands of dollars spent on variable costs per year that farmers pay to get crops in the ground (Seed to plant, fertilizer to grow the crop, and chemical to protect the crop).

    Margins in farming are the worst in the world. Why? Because Commodities (that’s a big person word for all grouping all raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.) prices are kept low to keep food prices relatively low in a method to keep food prices cheap in the grocery stores. Wheat in 1975 was $8 a bushel, where today’s prices they sit at around $5 to $6.

    IN 1975, equipment and inputs where a fraction of the price they are now. And whenever a farmer questioned this fact that how to survive low commodity prices they were always told to go bigger and grow more of it. And now we have the masses criticizing that Farms are too big and need to be controlled. A Farmer can never win.

    The fact of the matter is, that when you take our expenses, equipment and land assets, and count for all the hours that a Farmer puts into his product which is only for the sole purpose of Feeding the world, FARMERS ARE AMONG THE LOWEST PAID per hour in Canada, and that is if you have a crop. Growing Crops are not a guarantee. If bad weather plays out, a whole year is lost. The stress this has on the wellbeing of each and every farmer is another story altogether.

    Bottom line, Farmer work hard for their lifestyle… a lifestyle that millions of Canadians could not handle. But the farming industry does because the love the challenge, the pride of producing something that is a necessity for the survival of the human species. All they ask is for a little thanks, a little respect. Not to be judged not to be treated as a second class citizen and not criticized doing work from those who really do not understand.

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