Farm fatality highlights gaps in Alberta’s new Employment Standard Code

By Bob Barnetson

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Power take-off (PTO) from a tractor.

Alberta’s Bill 17 amended the Employment Standard Code. These amendments including extending certain employment rights to farm workers. One of the gaps in Bill 17’s coverage of farm workers is that there continue to be no rules around the hours of work, rest periods, and over time.

Farm workers are guaranteed four days of rest in 28 (a variation on the one-day-in-seven rule everyone else faces). Given the seasonal nature of farm work, the lack of rules to manage fatigue represent a clear health-and-safety issues that the government ducked.

This is more than just a notional concern. On June 29, a fatality inquiry into the 2014 death of farm worker Stephen Murray Gibson was released. Gibson was killed on January 31, 2014 after he was pulled into an unguarded drive shaft on a power take off (PTO) and killed. According to Justice Brown:

8. Mr. Gibson turned off the PTO from the tractor and began to clear by hand the jam in the 
auger. He then went to the tractor, started the PTO and returned to the auger, once more reaching up to clear grain; before Mr. Hamilton’s horrified gaze, part of Mr. Gibson’s clothing caught on the unshielded PTO and drew Mr. Gibson into the machinery, killing him instantly.

One of the factors contributing to Gibson’s death was that the PTO did not have a guard to prevent entanglement on it. The 40- to 50-year-old PTO had originally been manufactured with one, but it was missing when the PTO was purchased by the farmer. Had there been a guard, Gibson likely would not have been killed.
A secondary factor may have been Gibson’s fatigue. The inquiry notes that, prior to his death, Gibson had not had a day off in the last 28 due to winter feeding and calving. Reaching into the augur while the unshielded drive shaft was spinning was a poor decision. Fatigue often impairs our decision-making capabilities.
Bill 17 largely ignores the hazard posed to farm workers by fatigue. By excluding farm workers from such protections, the government has prioritizing production demands over the health and safety of farm workers. Consequently, we’ll continue to see such deaths going forward.
The fatality inquiry makes two recommendations: (1) mandatory OHS education in PSE courses, and (2) annual government certification of farm equipment, including PTOs.

Recommending mandatory OHS training in post-secondary ag programs is a good idea. But safety education has been found to be demonstrably ineffective at preventing injury or changing farm safety practices in Canada. And OHS education has no effect on the presence of the hazards that contributed to this death (unguarded PTO and fatigue).
The second recommendation (although laborious to implement) would reduce the use of unsafe equipment on farms. It will be interesting to see if the farm OHS regulations that come out of the Bill 6 consultations entail any program of equipment inspection (since farm equipment often has a long lifespan and is subject to user modification).
Given this, the government may wish to revisit its position on regulating the hours of work for farm workers in Alberta.

This article originally appeared at Labour & Employment in Alberta

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