Will Ont. farm death verdict lead to safer practices?

A recent court case that saw an Ontario farmer convicted of criminal negligence in the death of his son could encourage more farmers to improve safety, according to experts.

In the history-making case, Justice Julia Morneau of the Ontario Court of Justice on Aug. 8 sentenced farmer Emanuel Bauman with a 10-year driving prohibition and 240 hours of community service following the death of his four-year-old son, Steven.

Steven had been riding with his sibling in a skid-steer bucket, but he fell out. Bauman, who was dumping wood chips at the time through the back of his trailer, didn’t notice Steven had fallen out and ultimately ran over him.

In her sentence, Morneau said the farmer’s behaviour was reckless and he could have foreseen the consequences of his actions.

She said his conduct was at the “lowest end of the spectrum of deliberate endangerment.”

However, she stopped short of giving Bauman jail-time, saying it would have compounded the family’s grief. She hoped he would use his community service to discuss farm safety with others.

“I am satisfied that any farmer or other person operating heavy equipment in the course of a farm operation is more likely to be deterred from risking a child’s safety by the prospect that the child could die than by the prospect of going to jail,” she said.

“I am satisfied that the principle of denunciation is addressed by the conviction itself.”

This is the first time in Canada that anyone has been charged and convicted over a child dying in a farm incident, according to legal experts.

The no-jail sentence could deter future prosecutions because they are costly, they say, but it signals to the public that children dying from heavy machinery on farms is a problem and that farmers are no longer immune to legal consequences.

“It shows that yes there is a problem, but perhaps other tools than prosecution are appropriate,” said Gordon Scott Campbell, a farm lawyer and former federal prosecutor, who works at Ontario firm Aubry Campbell MacLean said.

“It’s only a suspended sentence, so why not spend the money educating, for example. But perhaps in rare cases, prosecution can be appropriate and this seems to be one of the rare cases.”

Some injury prevention experts and agriculture safety specialists agreed with the sentence, suggesting jail time would have been harsh given the circumstances.

Still, they hope the case spreads awareness of child fatalities on farms and encourages producers to reduce their children’s exposure to hazards on the farm.

“We’re hoping it will have a positive outcome, starting with having more conversations around farm safety in general,” said Robert Gobeil, an agricultural safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

“We all have a role to play in safety on the farm, and this shows a producer or operator has certain responsibilities under the law, so it raises more awareness and makes operators more aware of their obligations.”

Don Voaklander, a professor and the director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta, said Bauman’s sentence was appropriate given the circumstances.

He said the family will never recover from the death of their son.

“The farmer is going to suffer that day for the rest of his life, but I think the judge was reasonable,” he said. “This is a message.”

Many safety experts, however, contend Morneau’s characterization that the death was a rare incident, given about four to 10 children die every year from a farm accident, according to data compiled by Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting from 1990 to 2012.

“These deaths are inevitably caused by a well-meaning parent bringing a child or children into the workplace while they are working around major hazards, the adult not being able to give the child the attention required for effective supervision, and then the child being killed or injured as a result of a hazard that overwhelms the child’s natural abilities,” said William Pickett, a professor in the department of public health sciences at Queen’s University.

“This was true in this case too. This is a known pattern in the injury prevention community.”

Voaklander said education appears to not be working because child death numbers remain relatively unchanged.

Part of the solution, he said, is having more producers adopt guidelines that outline age-appropriate farm tasks for children, which expose them to the farm life without hazards.

“If those were used more by farmers, that would be a big help,” he said. “They are free to use and there are quite a few of them. They are scaled for the developmental phase of the child and what they can handle cognitively.”

Going forward, some experts say it’s unlikely governments will change laws to help protect children from exposure to hazards.

For one, they say it would be difficult to do.

Two, farm safety is a politically charged issue with fierce opposition. The outcome of Alberta’s Bill 6, for example, eroded trust between farmers and the former NDP government.

Currently, Alberta’s UCP government is re-working farm safety laws, looking at potentially exempting small family farms from some of the rules. It’s unlikely they will enact rules that would be perceived as restricting children’s ability to partake in farm activities.

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