Local experts call for changes to farm safety rules

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Alberta farmers should be able to poop in the great outdoors if there’s no toilet available, say farm workers reviewing the province’s workplace safety regulations.

That change was one of over a hundred recommendations made by four technical working groups tasked by the province to review how Alberta’s occupational safety and health rules should apply to farms and ranches. The province released the working groups’ reports last week.

The province passed the controversial farm safety law Bill 6 in December 2015. The law puts paid, non-family workers under provincial occupational health and safety regulations and requires those workers to have Workers’ Compensation Board insurance coverage.

After the law sparked angry protests from farmers, the province struck six working groups to review how health and safety rules should apply to farms. Recommendations from two of those groups (which included Sturgeon County Coun. Karen Shaw and St. Albert labour relations officer Dewey Funk as members) were accepted earlier this year.

“We’ve promised from day one that we were going to consult as widely as possible,” said Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier in an interview.

He acknowledged that the reports were long and technical (about 200 pages total) and said that the province was working on a summary of them.

The four reports contain 142 recommendations on health and safety rules, best practices, and education.

The groups had some very candid conversations about farm safety, said Enjoy Centre co-owner Jim Hole, who represented greenhouse owners on one of the groups.

“I learned a lot. We had a lot of people from all sectors of agriculture.”

The groups were very inclusive and went out of their way to allow for dissenting opinions, said group member Don Voaklander, director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta.

“They really tried to give voice to people who didn’t agree with everything the government was doing.”

Exceptions abound

Farming is the fourth most dangerous occupation in Canada, and farm workers deserve the same protection as any other worker in the province, Voaklander said.

But Hole said farms also have unique traits, such as animals, and family members, that set them apart from other work sites. That means you can’t apply the same rules to them without adaptation.

Many of the working group’s recommendations called for exemptions or changes to workplace safety rules as applied to farms.

One group called for farmers to be allowed to wear riding boots if they worked with horses, for example, as wearing steel-toed boots was hazardous on horses. Another wanted farmers to be able to use “the great outdoors” as a toilet, as they often work far from bathrooms. Discussion of the latter recommendation involved “a series of bad puns,” noted group chair Donald Mallon.

The groups also disagreed on some changes. While some members supported mandatory seatbelt use, others deemed it impractical, as farmers often had to drive equipment while seated backwards. There was also disagreement on whether or not rollover protection structures should be required on all tractors and ATVs.

“Everyone in the agriculture safety world knows they’re one of the primary prevention methods to keep people from dying on tractors,” Voaklander said, but some group members presented what he called “garbage” evidence to the contrary. He personally hoped the province would make rollover protectors mandatory, possibly with a rebate for retrofitting old tractors.

Hole agreed, noting that his father was one of the first in this region to add a roll-cage to his tractor.

“It may not be perfect for every situation, but the way I see it, the good outweighs the bad.”

The groups called for new guidelines on entanglements, rebates to defray the costs of safety rules, and the creation of an industry-led provincial farm safety association.

The province has yet to adopt any of the recommendations in these four reports, Carlier said. He encouraged people to read and comment on them before Jan. 15.

The reports are available at www.alberta.ca/farm-and-ranch-consultations.aspx.

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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.