When Alberta farmers held tractor rallies and demonstrations in 2015 to protest Bill 6, the NDP government’s farm safety legislation, Mike Rappel attended most of them.
He saw the anger and confusion that arose from the plan, which passed with minor amendments to become Alberta’s Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.
Now Rappel, a former paramedic with roots on family farms in northern Alberta, is helping administer the act, even as its chapter and verse are being finalized by government.
He is the investigations manager for Occupational Health and Safety with Alberta Labour and part of a team that inspects farms where a fatality or accident has been re-ported.
There are 18 officers assigned to do such inspections. In all of 2016, they handled only 20 calls.
“We expected a lot more in the beginning. With the exemptions and otherwise, we’ve had less numbers than we originally ex-pected,” he said, referring to the amendment that excludes owners and family members from OHS application.
“As the word continues to get out and companies do realize, ‘oh, whoops, I have to report things’, and workers themselves understand, ‘I’m a worker, I have a right now to file a complaint,’ we may see an increase in calls as it gets more and more out there, as the technical rules come out and the legislation comes out.”
The spectre of random farm inspections was among concerns of farmers and ranchers when farm safety legislation was announced.
So was the thought that people ignorant about agriculture might be doing those inspections.
Rappel said those fears can be put to rest for the moment.
“At this stage, without the technical rules, without the code itself that they’re still working on, what we’ve said is that we won’t be doing any proactive inspections at all until those rules are in place,” he said.
“Until the technical rules are in place, we’re not going to just be driving up and down the range roads and the township roads looking for stuff.”
However, he acknowledged random inspections could be part of the future plan.
As for agricultural knowledge, he said all of the 18 inspectors have some type of background in the field.
“We’ve got guys who were raised on cattle farms. We’ve got people that have worked in feedlots. We’ve got people that their family still sits on the farm. They themselves still sit on the farm.
“So its been really, really lucky that way, really fortunate to have that internal knowledge within OH and S to be able to work with the industry,” Rappel told the April 6 meeting of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs.
Until all the technical rules are developed, producers with paid employees who are not family members are expected to follow generally acceptable safety standards.
“Right now, it’s voluntary compliance,” said Rappel.
The OH & S inspectors have the authority to inspect if an accident has occurred provided it happened to a paid, non-family worker.
Reportable incidents include situations on the farm operation where an injury or fatality has occurred, cases where a worker has to be hospitalized for more than two days as a result of an on-farm accident, unplanned or uncontrolled explosions, fires or floods that cause or could cause serious injury, and collapses or failures of any component of a building that affects structural integrity.
Though they haven’t written any yet, inspectors can issue orders for compliance or stop-work orders if a situation presents an imminent threat.
There is also an appeals process through the Alberta Health and Safety Council.
“It’s not all about writing orders and it’s not all about writing tickets…. It’s about prevention. That’s really what we want most,” Rappel said.
“We’re going to have the discretion to be flexible with the approach.”
Rappel said the idea is to engage farmers and ranchers in keeping workers safe, and doing it through education and discussion.
Workers also have an obligation to report hazards, follow the em-ployer’s health and safety program and can refuse work if it presents an imminent danger.
As a former paramedic, Rappel said he has responded to farm accidents in the past and they have a common theme.
“Farming injuries unfortunately tend to be very unforgiving. It’s one of those ones where if it goes wrong, it will go very badly wrong.”
Now that he has been meeting with farmers for more than a year, Rappel said he isn’t seeing the same kind of emotion that he saw during the pre-legislation rallies.
“In the smaller areas where the farmers are coming to hear this presentation, they’re actually very informed. They’ve seen this now for 15 months. They understand the issues. We haven’t gotten the real push back. They’re not angry. They’re listening. They’re engaged.”