Politics and farm safety in Alberta

In no other industry would such a poor safety record be allowed stand unchallenged

My grandfather died in a farming accident. A great-aunt lost an arm in an auger. A boy I rode the school bus with stopped a church service one autumn to tell everyone his brother had just been crushed to death in a combine.

In the last few months, four children have died in farming mishaps in the region around Red Deer, Alta., alone.

In no other industry would such a poor safety record be allowed to stand unchallenged. But in Alberta, it’s just statistics — and poorly reported at that.

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Alberta’s non-profit Farm Safety Centre lists agriculture as Canada’s third most dangerous industry. Other stats-gathering groups such as FinancesOnline rank agriculture at No. 9 in the top 10 most dangerous ways to earn a living, behind logging, fishing, flying, roofing, steel work, garbage collecting, power-line work and truck driving. Police work and firefighting don’t even make the list.

The difference between these other dangerous careers and farming is only in farming do we think it’s normal to make our children do it. In Alberta, the farming community and the Opposition in the legislature don’t think labour laws regarding safety or mandatory insurance should apply to farm work. And that’s unique in all of Canada — farms everywhere else operate just fine with those laws.

Extending occupational health and safety laws to the farming industry has been part of the Alberta NDP’s platform for years. It’s been part of the Progressive Conservative platform for some time as well — former premiers Jim Prentice and Alison Redford both said they would consider such laws, according to Farmworkers Union of Alberta president Eric Musekamp.

And the NDP advocated this for so long nobody thought bringing Alberta up to speed on farm safety should be so difficult.

But that’s the problem: nobody thought.

So the introduction of Bill 6 became the first lesson to a rookie provincial government about the art of the possible. It had to happen sooner or later to this government, and sooner is probably better.

It’s not that Prentice, Redford and other premiers before Rachel Notley didn’t care about the safety of farmers or their children (not quite one in five farm deaths in Canada involves children 14 and younger). It’s that a veteran government with a complex agenda didn’t want to face the wrath of people who don’t want change, even if their families would benefit most.

So the Conservatives let things slide, ignored the deaths and injuries, and allowed reporting of incidents to be incomplete.

Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported there were 25 farm deaths in the province in 2014. The report and breakdown of the grisly ways there are to die young on the farm included a note that due to poor reporting, the numbers are likely low.

On Dec. 14, labour activists planned to gather in Edmonton to lay down 112 pairs of work gloves representing the lives lost on Alberta farms since 2009. Those gloves only represent the deaths that have been reported.

Will they lay down fingers of gloves for all those who have lost limbs or been otherwise seriously injured? It’s unlikely, since those stats aren’t kept.

How many of those lives could have been saved if safety regulations were in place? If farm workers with few rights had not worked long hours, had been properly trained regarding heavy equipment and dangerous chemicals or been allowed to refuse work that just isn’t safe?

After learning a hard lesson in the art of governance, the NDP introduced amendments to Bill 6, exempting family members from these safety regulations. Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Lori Sigurdson said this was the plan all along: that farm children were always to be allowed to drive without a licence, operate heavy equipment, handle large animals and work whatever hours would be required to keep the farm going without labour protection.

I wish she hadn’t said that, but I’m not the one taking all the angry calls, standing in front of enraged crowds and being called all sorts of unmentionable names.

I also wish the Opposition Wildrose Party didn’t see fit to make such political hay over the broken bodies and shattered families on Alberta farms. There are better ways to oppose and present alternatives.

But in Alberta, the government and the Opposition are very new to their roles. They are all still learning how far ahead of the crowd you can be and still lead — and how important it is to be courageous and do the right thing.

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer. Distributed by Troy Media

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