Accident may push farm safety legislation into spotlight

The deaths of three children in an Alberta farm accident Oct.13 has aimed a spotlight at farm safety and potential legislation that might improve it.

Farmworkers Union of Alberta president Eric Musekamp asked for and got a meeting with provincial government bureaucrats Oct. 16, after learning that Catie, Jana and Dara Bott of Withrow, Alta., had died after being buried in a truckload of canola.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks, I have to tell you,” said Musekamp, who has lobbied for more Alberta farm worker protection for years.

“In my mind, we’ve let down that family. The survivors, the people of the community, they’re all victims to the status quo, to this wild west thing we’ve got going here in agriculture. It just simply doesn’t work anymore.”

Alberta has no legislation requiring farm workers to be provided with worker’s compensation, nor are they covered by Occupational Health and Safety regulations.

The three children were not farm workers, but Musekamp said lives could have been saved if legislation had been in place and farm safety training had been part of it and of farm culture.

Alberta agriculture minister Oneil Carlier and labour minister Lori Sigurdson have said they want agriculture to be included under occupation health and safety rules and plan to consult with farm groups about implementation.

“Over the summer, my colleague, minister Carlier, and myself have met with industry members on potential changes to legislation related to the farm and ranch industry,” Sigurdson said in an Oct. 22 email. “We look forward to bringing more information on this important issue forward in the coming weeks.” 

Musekamp said he thinks the government might announce changes during the next sitting of the legislature, which was to begin Oct. 26.

“I’m a little bit concerned that the government is going to act a little bit unilaterally without bringing in the opinions of some of these groups,” Musekamp said Oct. 20.

“There’s very little sympathy, actually, within the New Democratic government for the status quo and for the arguments that (mandatory farm worker protection) costs too much money or it’s too much hassle.”

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said he has also heard that farm worker legislation is on the NDP government’s immediate agenda.

The AFA has not resolved its position on whether farm worker coverage should be legislated, said Jacobson.

He said Oct. 20 that the worker’s compensation program might need revision to suit agricultural situations, and the same is true of occupational health and safety rules.

“We need, basically, rules and regulations developed for agriculture that will work and are sensible. We also need people within OH & S … knowledgeable about agriculture. That’s going to be crucial.”

Musekamp said he looks to British Columbia’s Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association as a model that could work in Alberta. It has reduced farm fatalities by 60 percent since its inception, he added.

The association is governed by a board with members from the B.C. Agriculture Council, the Canadian Farmworkers Union and a non-affiliated chair.

Musekamp said he thinks the Alberta Federation of Agriculture could be the base from which a similar program could be developed, but that would require it to have stable and reliable funding

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