It’s time to bring farm safety out of the Stone Age, a Manitoba farm leader told participants attending last week’s Farm Safety Expo here.
“We all know someone who has been injured and some know someone who’s been killed,” said Dan Mazier, vice-president of Keystone Agricultural Producers as a show of hands went up around the room. “That’s just totally unacceptable.”
Mazier delivered a blunt message; attitudes on the farm towards safety must change. But he was speaking to a receptive audience at the event co-hosted by KAP and Manitoba Farmers with Disabilities.
Mazier said farmers aren’t doing even the simple things to make the job site safer, such as wearing a high-visibility vest more often, or keeping a first aid kit handy for an emergency.
Nor are they tackling the bigger issues beyond personal safety. Farmers who hire people to work for them have no protocols for training new workers to do their jobs safely. Few have taken time to understand how Workplace Safety and Health legislation applies to their businesses, he said.
“People just aren’t aware we have to do this,” said Mazier, the first speaker of a half-day safety seminar geared to family farms.
“We’ve got a bunch of different excuses. Farmers’ No. 1 excuse is that ‘farming is different’ (than other industries). It’s time to say ‘we can do a lot better than this.’”
The only thing that makes farming different is that when fines are imposed or safety lapses enforced, the investigator is knocking on the door of a farmer’s personal residence, not calling in at the job site, he added.
Farm injury and fatality statistics are evidence not much is being done in prevention; the latest data gathered by the Canadian Agricultural Injury Report show since 2000 the number of deaths on farms around the country has dropped to 89 a year from 118.
KAP has had a hard time getting buy-in for its Safe Farm Program. Since 2010 the farm organization has employed a farm safety specialist, offering free farm safety assessments to farmers who have employees and pay into Workers Compensation Board.
Participation includes an offer of two visits by the safety specialist, the first to do a thorough job site assessment and identify risk management strategies, the second visit to review a prepared report and evaluate actions taken.
KAP did 32 initial farm visits, but were only asked back to five farms for the followup visit. The program ends in March.
They struggled, especially at the beginning, to get farmer participation, Mazier said.
“We were told ‘this is going to cost money.’”
But ignoring legal obligations as a business owner to improve the safety of the workplace is also going to cost you, other speakers last week said.
Farmers are extremely exposed from liability perspective if they aren’t doing due diligence, said Jeff Shaw, the Brandon-based provincial farm safety co-ordinator who talked about SAFE Farms, a safety prevention initiative supported by Workplace Safety and Health and the Workers Compensation Board.
Most farms now have hired help, either as seasonal or year-round hands, or contractors, yet Shaw and his team see farms where it’s not clear what training in safe work procedures has been offered.
“If you have a worker on your farm who becomes hurt and you have an investigation team and the RCMP and everything else at your farm, they’re going to be asking for training records, safe work procedures,” he said.
“And, at this point in time, most farms in the province don’t have those (records),” he said. “Your farm is vulnerable to that.”
What’s also unknown is what percentage of farmers with paid employees have signed up for Workers Compensation Board coverage, which became mandatory at the beginning of 2009.
That year the province rolled agriculture in with other high-risk industries, and made it mandatory that all paid farm employees be covered by workers’ compensation.
Dwight Doell, director of SAFE work services with WCB, who also spoke at the seminar, said coverage pays replacement wages, and rehabilitative services to workers injured in the workplace and will also cover job retraining if a worker can never return to their job.
“It’s a really good benefit if a horrible situation happens,” he said.
Having coverage also protects an employer from being sued because an injured worker covered by WCB cannot pursue legal action against their employer.
Farm owners can also opt to purchase voluntary coverage for themselves and the WCB no longer looks at farm profitability when accessing eligibility for personal coverage.
“We used to get into that, but we’ve made some changes there,” he said.
The cost of coverage depends on the size of the farm payroll. If the farm payroll is $20,000 the cost of WCB coverage, calculated with a farm rate formula of 2.36 would be $472.
But if that seems a small price to pay to protect an injured worker from financial hardship and the farm from a lawsuit, it’s not known to what extent farmers are registered for WCB coverage.
A WCB spokesman says there is no way of tracking how many of the total farms with employees are registered for WCB coverage.
“We generally find out if people aren’t covered only if an injury occurs and then we find out there was no coverage,” said Warren Preece.
WCB’s agricultural payroll has tripled since 2008, which was the last year WCB coverage was voluntary for farm workers. It now has 1,671 farm accounts.
Preece said the WCB is doing more to inform farmers that, if they’re hiring people to work for them, buying WCB coverage is no longer voluntary, but required by law.
“I think we have a big audience of people who needs to hear that message,” he added.