Categories: Agriculture

Death on the family farm

Don Voaklander of the University of Alberta's Injury Prevention Centre is giving a free talk Thursday on farm safety as part of Canadian Agricultural Safety Week

Albertans might have to kill off the family farm to keep farmers from dying on the job, suggests a public safety advocate.

Don Voaklander of the University of Alberta’s Injury Prevention Centre is giving a free talk Thursday on farm safety as part of Canadian Agricultural Safety Week, which is March 12 to 18.

Voaklander said the talk, entitled “Old MacDonald had a Farm Injury,” will examine trends in farm fatalities and injuries since the 1990s and ways to prevent them.

While the number of on-farm deaths has dropped in the last few decades, there are still enough of them to make farming the third or fourth most dangerous job in Canada, Voaklander said.

“Sixty-odd per cent of the fatalities we have are farmers and their families,” he said, yet family farms are the one group not targeted by safety regulations.

It’s part of a cultural issue where on-farm accidents are seen as a way of life, he said. If a farmer poisons their kid, we throw them in jail, but if he accidentally backs over them with a tractor, we say “too bad, so sad.” He grew up on a farm, and recalls regularly working with dangerous animals and playing unsupervised in the hay loft 20 feet up.

Voaklander called for a cultural shift in on-farm attitudes towards safety, one that a shift to bigger, regulated, corporate farms could help create.

“To reduce death on family farms, we might need to see the death of family farms,” said Voaklander.

This was not a popular message, but it needed to be heard, he said.

“There’s nobody protecting those kids.”

Unsafe on the farm

About 101 Canadians die working on farms each year, reports Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting. Fatality rates dropped about 1.1 per cent a year between 1990 and 2012.

Voaklander said most of that improvement is machinery related: you can’t buy a tractor without a roll-cage nowadays, and safety guards are now much less intrusive, meaning farmers are less likely to remove them.

About 10 per cent of farm fatalities involve children, and that rate hasn’t changed much in 20 years, Voaklander said.

“That’s a bit demoralizing.”

Studies suggest on-farm deaths cost Canadians about $300 million a year, said Glen Blahey, agricultural health and safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

Farming is an occupation where workers often work alone without formal training, procedures or safety checks, Blahey said.

“The agricultural sector really is a neophyte when it comes to occupational health and safety.”

Although some farmers may protest safety regulations, Blahey said that these rules make for a more efficient farm: every on-farm death or injury costs a farm about $275,000, his group estimates.

Blahey disagreed that corporatization was the way to go when it came to improving on-farm safety. The key instead was to have families commit to protecting on-farm workers and seriously talking about safety with each other.

“Safety is something that should be talked about as part of every job.”

Parents need to step back and objectively evaluate the mental and physical capabilities of kids and seniors on a farm and provide both with ongoing supervision and training, Blahey said.

Voaklander said major stores such as Walmart are now pushing for better labour standards on farms in response to customer demand, which could improve farm safety.

Voaklander said farmers should keep kids under 10 away from all farm machinery, and work closely with seniors to ensure they can handle the hours they work. Adults should have a cellphone or walkie-talkie and stay in regular contact with co-workers.

Four provincial working groups are expected to issue recommendations on occupational health and safety issues on farms later this year.

Voaklander’s talk is this March 9 at 5 p.m. in room 2-490 at the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (11405-87 Ave.). The talk will also be broadcast live online at bit.ly/TIPHFarmSafety.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.