ALDERGROVE, B.C. — Translating government regulations to farm speak is what AgSafe staff does best.
The not-for-profit education and training agency helps farmers implement British Columbia’s mandatory, but not always clear, farm safety rules.
It’s who Ana Ante called when she wanted help resolving a longstanding order from WorkSafe BC to fix safety violations at the greenhouse where she works.
“The inspector tells you it’s the regulation, blah, blah, blah, subsection 16, and when you read it and it isn’t your daily bread, it is quite difficult,” said Ante, assistant general manger of the greenhouse, which requested it not be named.
“That’s when FARSHA (formerly the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association but now called AgSafe) becomes very helpful. I can understand what the inspector wants,” said Ante.
“The relationship with the (WorkPlace BC) inspector has improved. I will not say it is excellent. It is a matter of trust.”
Ante booked David Nguyen, an AgSafe senior safety adviser, to spend two days looking for gaps in the greenhouse’s safety program and help it become compliant.
“The regulations can be very technical. They’re not always easy to interpret. You have to be able to understand their language,” said Nguyen, who helps greenhouses become compliant with the rules.
Ranchers also turn to AgSafe to help them meet the safety rules.
Nicola Ranch manager Matt Williams doesn’t think the ranch would have its strong safety policies without Reg Steward, AgSafe’s farm and ranch specialist.
“If it wasn’t for Reg, I would be in really big trouble,” he said.
“Reg has held me by the hand and spoon fed me and cuddled me and has done everything to make sure I was running a program. This did not happen overnight.”
“That was the key for me was having someone who I could go to.”
Steward drove 80,000 kilometres across B.C. last year, helping farmers and ranchers comply with WorkSafe BC’s regulations.
As a cowboy for an interior B.C. ranch, Steward comes with credibility and common sense.
“I spend a lot of time with WorkSafe officers and determine what they were looking for and break it down to simple things for producers,” said Steward.
The regulators are often looking for documentation of farm safety practices, and Steward has convinced them that a chat between cowboys to warn about a bull in the next pasture, and then documenting the discussion in a pocket notebook, is an acceptable safety meeting.
Another example is a tailgate meeting between a ranch’s cowboys about the best shoes to put on the horses to prevent them from slipping down hills and then writing the discussion in a notebook.
“That is a doable solution that meets the requirements of the regulation, and those are some of the things that an organization like FARSHA can help the producers.”
FARSHA was created in 1993 to help reduce the number of accidents and injuries occurring on B.C’s farms.
“The job was to get out and try to advise farmers about the safety hazards and what they could do about it because too many people were being injured,” said Wendy Bennett, AgSafe’s executive director.
The provincial government decided in 2003 that all occupational health and safety regulations would apply to agriculture. Farm safety was promoted, but the regulations were not enforced.
A tragic accident at a mushroom composting facility in 2008 changed everything. Three men died and two others were permanently injured in the pump shed at the Langley farm when they were overcome with poisonous gas. The coroner’s inquest recommended that the government hire additional WorkSafe BC officers to inspect agricultural operations.
“From that point the whole enforcement of the regulations really started to happen,” said Bennett. “The mushroom incident was key.”
The farmers who began getting visits from WorkSafe BC officers turned to AgSafe for help.
The organization provides farmers with stickers, workbooks and check sheets and training courses in multiple languages to help farmers comply with the safety legislation.
Steward doesn’t dump the entire book of regulations on farmers when he sits down with them to create a farm safety program. Rather, he starts with baby steps.
“Instead of going there with a full-on eight part safety program and a whole bunch of pieces, we’re going there with one piece to start with.”
Steward suggests the farmer identify the one or two safety features that are most appropriate for the farm and then together they begin the process.
“To go and overwhelm someone and drive out the driveway and come back six months later, it doesn’t work that well,” he said.
“It is much better to prioritize the things that need to be done and implement those things, get good at those and make them part of the way you do business,” said Steward, who believes farmers have become more safety conscious over the years.
“One rancher told me, ‘everything we do now, safety is something we consciously think about. Where before we used to just do stuff,’ ” said Steward.
Williams said AgSafe has helped his ranch develop policies for cowboys who work alone.
He recently sent a cowboy out on a snowmobile to check wintering horses in a distant pasture. The time and route the cowboy took was noted before leaving ranch headquarters. It was also noted that he would call back every three or four hours to let ranch staff know he was OK. The cowboy stopped by the headquarters when he returned home, which was also recorded.
“In the old days, we would have just sent him out and not worried about him. When he got home, he got home,” said Williams.
“We must do our due diligence, and we must not only demonstrate our due diligence, we must record that we are doing our due diligence. It’s a big deal.”
Bennett believes the farm safety programs are working. The number of inspections on BC’s 5,000 farms that require WorkSafe BC coverage remains the same, but the number of written orders in 2015 was down 30 percent from 2014.
As well, the injury rate has fallen in the 20 years since farm safety programs were first launched in the province, he added.
Bennett said some farmers are still reluctant to use AgSafe’s expertise, despite its successes.
For example, WorkSafe BC’s safety officers halted work on a blueberry farm operation last year when workers were spraying pesticide with no safety protection.
“The WorkSafe officer had reason to believe it was happening at all the employer’s sites and stopped work at all of them,” she said.
“The workers were spraying pesticide with no respiratory protection or knowledge of what they were doing. I don’t believe the farmer was purposely putting the workers at risk.”
AgSafe’s safety specialists were called to the farm and performed 36 hours of intensive worker training so the farmer wouldn’t lose his crop.
“His training is ongoing. He may end up being our poster child for greatest improvement.”
Having a free, non-profit agency such as AgSafe will be important for Alberta farmers, who soon will be following some form of occupational health and safety standards on their farms once regulations are designed.
“I think ranchers and farmers out in Alberta are going to need an awful lot of training. I think it is going to be very onerous on them if they don’t,” said Williams, who recommends livestock associations and farm groups work with the government to request that such a program be implemented along with the mandatory rules.
“This isn’t going to go away. Whomever the next government is, and one can assume it’s not going to be the NDP, it won’t matter because the next government isn’t going to refute this legislation. They won’t repeal it. It’s here. Now they have to try and make it work.… Be pragmatic. Sit down with government, as difficult as that is going to be, and try to get a program that will function.”