Farming a safety association

Farming a safety association
For Bruce Johnson, it was perfect timing. When he quit his job as an operations manager at a British Columbia grain company in 1993, the provincial government was creating a set of regulations specifically for the agriculture sector.

“I thought I needed to make a career change, and I didn’t know exactly what that was, but then I saw an article in the paper looking for someone with an agriculture and health and safety background to start an association,” says Johnson.

His position at Pioneer Grain gave him experience in agriculture, as well as a solid understanding in occupational health and safety. He had completed a 40-hour safety program auditing course and he was required to ensure the facilities he managed were compliant with the safety programs.

Johnson got the job and the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association (FARSHA) was born. FARSHA is a non-profit association based in Langley, B.C., whose mandate is the development and provision of health and safety services to B.C. agriculture.

It is funded through a levy that is added to employers’ assessment rates to the workers’ compensation board.

“When I started, there was nothing. They handed me a folder and said, ‘See what you can do,’” says Johnson, executive director of FARSHA. “We had to quite quickly hit the ground running.”

Johnson and his staff of three quickly determined a need for training programs and resources, which continue to be an integral component of the association. It offers booklets, videos, pamphlets and apps for smartphones.

The association now has a staff of 16, including several health and safety specialists. The specialties range from ranching and animals to mushroom and berry farms, greenhouses and nurseries, and orchards and vineyards.

FARSHA has developed a health and safety program for the agriculture industry, and it visits employers to facilitate its implementation.

“We help them set up a safety committee and train them on how to do workplace inspections, incident investigations, or any other kind of training they may need, so whether it’s tractor training or forklift training, we let them know we are available to come out and help them with that,” says Johnson.

Employers often call upon the association after a government inspector has been to their workplace. B.C. has 12 officers dedicated to agriculture inspections.

“That makes quite a bit of work for us,” says Johnson. “They do the inspection on the farm and write orders, then the farm will call us to come out and help them get into compliance with those orders.”

Multi-language resources
Many employers in the farming sector hire new Canadians from different ethnic backgrounds, so FARSHA has a variety of materials available in Punjabi, Vietnamese and Spanish to help employers train workers on OHS issues.

B.C. sees a lot of workers coming in though the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, mainly from Mexico and Central America. FARSHA has developed an employer assistance program for farms hiring these workers. It includes a complete orientation package in DVD format that covers 11 basic OHS issues that workers from another country might encounter — and it can be played in several languages.

“It covers things like WHMIS, pesticides, sanitation issues, heat issues… it also provides written material so the farmer can go through and sign off with workers,” says Johnson.

Confined spaces are of particular concern to FARSHA. In 2008, there was an incident at a mushroom composting facility where three workers died and two were injured due to exposure to hazardous gases in a confined space.

To help limit incidents like this, Johnson currently serves on a steering committee working with WorkSafeBC to establish a confined spaces centre of excellence for the agricultural sector in the province.

Fall protection is another issue that is top of mind for the association. For example, a number of years ago, the elevated picking carts used in greenhouses were cause for concern because workers get up to fairly good heights but the carts were unguarded. To address this, FARSHA worked with the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) in Humboldt, Sask., to design handrails to put on the carts.

In ranching, working alone is a major concern.

“You have cowboys out there on the range and they might be gone for hours and hours at a time or even days and they’re not always in constant communication,” says Johnson. “We’re trying to resolve that and come up with ways to stay in communication.”

Johnson is heavily involved with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) of which he is a founding director. He has served various positions on its board of directors and executive committee since 1995. He was recently asked to be the president of the Farm Safe Foundation, a new charity that is being established to focus on fundraising and supporting CASA.

Improvements being made

Over the years, the agriculture industry has made some “significant successes” in health and safety with the injury rate for agriculture dropping from five in 2000 to 2.6 in 2010, says Johnson. And a little more than one year ago, FARSHA became a certified partner with the Alberta government in the Certificate of Recognition (COR) program, and it’s getting good uptake from the industry.

“Agriculture is fairly progressive and they do have an interest in safety,” he says. “For the most part, we can see more of a change where they’re wanting to implement health and safety programs, and they’re concern with the health and safety of their workers — we definitely can see changes there.”