GIBBONS, Alta. — Sweeping changes to work and safety rules for Alberta’s farms and ranches have generated concern among those in farming.
Few farmers know how the mandatory Workers Compensation or Occupational Health and Safety rules will apply to their farms or how they will affect workers or neighbours who drop by to help brand calves.
“There is a huge education initiative that is needed,” said Grace MacGregor, a director of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture.
Provincial jobs, skills, training and labour minister Lori Sigurdson unveiled the proposed changes Nov. 17 at a farm northeast of Edmonton.
The bill would make changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Workers Compensation Act, the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code.
“Everyone deserves a safe, fair and healthy workplace,” Sigurdson said. “With this bill, workplace legislation will now extend to farms and ranches. The rules we implement must respect the unique qualities of the farm and ranch industry, and I look forward to working with industry members to develop rules that make sense.”
Under the proposed changes, Workers Compensation Board coverage will be mandatory on all Alberta farms and ranches starting Jan. 1. As well, Alberta farms will no longer be excluded from Occupational Health and Safety legislation, and will have to comply with all employment standards, including hours of work, holidays, restrictions on employment of children and minimum wage. Farm workers will also be able to unionize and bargain collectively.
Alberta premier Rachel Notley said the legislation will save lives.
“I am convinced this will save lives and I am convinced it will also very much ameliorate the pain and suffering both to workers and their families when they are injured and they are left with absolutely no compensatory framework,” she said.
She said the rules are a basic human right other provinces have adopted, and have been ignored too long in Alberta.
Notley said she is committed to working with the agriculture industry to accommodate its unique needs while also protecting the safety of workers.
“A worker who is directed to do something which is fundamentally unsafe now has the right to say ‘no’. That is not a right that a farm worker in Alberta has, at this moment, or has had for the last 98 years. And that is overdue.”
The bill is expected to be passed by the end of the year, but the rules governing labour relations and employment standards are not expected to come into effect until spring.
Sigurdson said the technical requirements for the Occupational Health and Safety code will not come into effect until 2017, after industry and farmers have been consulted.
“We know harvest does not fit neatly into an eight hour day, and the calving season does not conform to a statutory holiday.”
Alberta agriculture minister Oneil Carlier said government will work with industry to design rules that are practical for Alberta’s 40,000 farms and 60,000 farm workers.
“As someone with hands-on experience, I understand that farming operations are a unique business and approaches to improving safety have to be well thought out,” said Carlier.
Between 1990 and 2009, 355 Albertans were killed in the agriculture industry. For every fatality, 25 were hospitalized for injury.
Farm injury and fatality statistics are not exact, but the number of deaths is not dropping. Ten farm-related deaths occurred in 2012, 16 in 2013 and 25 last year. Forty-seven workplace deaths occurred in Alberta for all other industries combined last year.
Michael Kalisvaart, who operates a 12,000 acre grain and oilseed farm, said the farm safety legislation is overdue.
“I am happy that we are going to see some legislated protection for farm workers. It is something I have supported for a long time. Safety and having some long-term benefits in case of accidents for workers are important for us,” said Kalisvaart, who hosted the announcement at his farm.
“We made a lot of efforts on our farm to make sure that safety is part of the conversation. We voluntarily signed up for WCB two years ago. I don’t think this is anything to be afraid of, and I think that agricultural businesses and the farming community needs to make this an important part of the conversation.”
Kalisvaart said it costs $7,000 a year for WCB coverage for his eight full-time and eight part- time employees. The coverage protects his workers but also protects his farm in case of an accident.
About 1,400 of Alberta’s 40,000 farms already have WCB coverage.
The Alberta Federation of Agriculture has long believed WCB is a good risk management tool for farmers, but a recent farmer survey about WCB and OHS showed few farmers knew how WCB or OHS could affect their farm.
MacGregor said some farmers believe WCB is a money grab and OHS is an invitation for urban residents to snoop.
“From our preliminary results from the survey, producers are very concerned about the country being filled with not very knowledgeable inspectors swarming around the farm and finding gaps,” said MacGregor.
Occupational Health and Safety inspectors were previously not allowed on farms to investigate if there was an accident. The proposed legislation will give officers the authority to inspect all work areas on farms and ranches.
John Bocock of St. Albert, Alta., said his farm chose to take WCB coverage 10 years ago as an incentive to keep good employees.
“We felt the need to improve our relationship with our employees, both in attitude and health coverage, in case there was an accident,” said Bocock.
The family has since sold their cattle, and the WCB paperwork required for one employee and casual workers throughout the year is not difficult, he said.
He estimates his labour costs at the beginning of the year, submits the paperwork and makes payments quarterly.
The actual wage costs are submitted at the end of the year, and Bocock makes an extra payment or receives a refund, depending on the hours.
“It’s not a big paperwork burden.”
Carlier conceded there will be initial reluctance, especially with the occupational health and safety rule changes, until rules and exemptions are identified for each industry.
Marion Popkin, a director with the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said the organization is trusting Sigurdson that the rules will make sense for agriculture.
“I certainly hope minister Sigurdson will live up to her ‘it’s got to be common sense for farmers’ statement, or otherwise it will be something of a nightmare.”
Wildrose jobs critic Grant Hunter said the intention of the proposed bill is good, but the concerns are in the details.
“How do we go about consulting with those in the trenches, the farmers and the ranchers?”
The government has scheduled five consultation meetings to talk to industry about the bill, which may not be enough to gather comments, he said.
Hunter believes Alberta should look to British Columbia, which has exempted family farms from many of the rules.
“We think that is a good idea. Commercial farms have the ability to hire the extra staff to take care of this kind of program,” he said.
“If we’re really concerned about the safety of the farm family, do you think anybody in Edmonton and any of the bureaucrats would have more concern for the safety of farm families than moms and dads?” he said.