It wasn’t easy trying to talk to farmers about safety in the early 1980s.
Usually his talk was last on farm meeting agendas, and he’d end up speaking mostly to empty chairs, Glen Blahey recalls.
Farmers then tended to see work done on the farm as no one else’s business. Or if safety mattered, it was about the kids.
“It was an interesting time and a revealing time,” says the agricultural health and safety specialist who has retired this spring after 37 years of service to the farm community.
Blahey has been with the national Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) since 2010. Prior, he worked 29 years in a similar role with the provincial government.
A farm kid from Chatfield, Manitoba, he jokes his career was launched while still in elementary school after he wrote an essay about farm safety for a contest and won first prize.
“It was for a group called the Rural Manitoba Safety Association and I won $25,” he recalls with a chuckle.
“I guess I’ve been a bit of safety geek from Day 1.”
His aim was to become an industrial arts teacher and he taught for a couple of years in the late 1970s at his alma mater Fisher Branch Collegiate, also providing vocational training in agriculture for students there. Then after earning a science degree at University of Manitoba he landed a job in 1981 with the province’s labour department.
“It was a brand new position,” he said. “The Department of Labour was looking for an agricultural safety officer, someone who had a bit of safety background but also agricultural experience to do a health and safety program for the ag community.”
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And though it was no easy sell at first, farm leaders did start to agree agriculture needed to pay a lot more attention to safety and health.
“Organizations like KAP started asking questions about farm safety and expressing interest,” he said. “I probably spoke with every president of KAP numerous times throughout the year. KAP really stepped forward.”
His work took him to all corners of the province, to speak at town hall meetings and rural events, later across Canada with CASA. There were new safety initiatives and campaigns to unveil and regulatory issues to explain. It was Blahey media contacted for context and perspective when tragedies occurred on the farm.
“I was probably involved in the investigation and assessment of maybe around 220 and 250 farm fatalities,” he said.
“They covered everything… from 97-year-olds to seven-month-olds. So I got a fairly broad perspective on what was going on.”
It was evident to him the farm community needed to see the bigger picture too. He was often asked for evidence and data to show how frequent and what types of injury were occurring.
It was Blahey who proposed Manitoba Health Services Commission add ‘farm’ to forms filled out when injuries required hospitalization, so ag-specific incidents could be documented. That work also laid the foundation for a national data collection system for farm injuries and fatalities. The gathered evidence ultimately would shift the way the ag community saw farm injuries and deaths.
They were no longer isolated events and prevention work began.
“We were able to start collecting data in terms of what type of work and what was involved in the injury or illness occurring,” he said. “Then we were able to stand up before a group, whether it was KAP or cattle producers and say, ‘look, in the past year we’ve had x number of people hospitalized because of incidents related to this practice or this animal or this activity.’”
Today most farmers see attending to one’s health and safety at work as essential business risk management and critical for their industry’s future. Farm groups have their own programs emphasizing this. Universities have courses about it. A whole new generation of farmers are now creating a ‘culture of safety,’ said Blahey.
Statistics tell part of that story.
There are still injuries and deaths, but fewer and not just because there’s fewer farmers nowadays.
“Nationally the statistics are telling us that there is a reduction in the frequency of serious injuries, fatalities,” he said.
Safety isn’t an add-on topic at farm meetings anymore either. Commodity groups, farm organizations and suppliers alike now talk about it.
“What I’ve noticed now is the topic of safety is laced into agendas throughout the course of the day now,” he said. “The majority of the speakers speak about it.”