Alberta farm workers’ death renews calls for OHSA reform

Labour unions in Alberta have renewed calls for the expansion of the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act to include agricultural workers, following the recent death of two Edmonton farm workers.

The Alberta Federation of Labour is calling the incident “proof that Alberta's workplace safety laws need to be extended to include agricultural workers.”

"It is simply absurd that investigators from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety were dispatched to investigate the death of these two workers, but had to abandon the investigation and leave the site when they discovered this happened on a farm," said Gil McGowan, president of the AFL, which represents 140,000 workers.

The two farm workers — aged 62 and 54 — died of electrocution after the grain auger they were moving touched an overhead power line, according to news reports. Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) currently does not cover agricultural workers.

"Today's farms are industrial workplaces just like any other — as this accident involving large equipment and power lines shows," McGowan said.

Echoing the AFL’s call, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) urged Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to “end the harvest of death” by immediately legislating health and safety protections for the province’s agriculture workforce.

“How many more people have to be killed on Alberta farms before the Stelmach Government listens to reason and the Barley recommendations?” UFCW Canada national president Wayne Hanley said. In 2008, Justice Peter Barley made recommendations to include the agriculture sector in the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act after investigating the death of farm worker Kevin Chandler.

Stelmach's office declined to comment on the AFL and UFCW statements, referring the matter to the Alberta Ministrty of Employment and Immigration. Barrie Harrison, spokesperson for Alberta Employment and Immigration told COS there's currently no plan to expand the OHSA to cover agricultural workers. "Certainly not anywhere in the near future."

In the last nine years, 160 people have died on farm worksites, according to the AFL.

Last month, the Alberta government announced the formation of the new Farm Safety Advisory Council, co-chaired by government and industry. According to the province’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Jack Hayden, the council will advise the government on how to enhance farm safety education and training.

“This council will bring industry and government together to find ways to reduce farm injuries without increasing the regulatory and financial burden on our producers,” Hayden said in a statement.

The co-chairs and members of the Farm Safety Advisory Council are expected to be announced in the new year. According to the ministry, members of the council will include representatives from farm safety organizations, municipalities, agricultural organizations and farm workers. ?

"Undoubtedly our minister would continue to have dialogue with the minister of agriculture to see what comes out of that committee and how government might want to move forward," Harrison said.

McGowan, however, called the creation of the council an "empty gesture." "The government says the council will be co-chaired by industry and government, but no leadership role is given to workers or their advocates — the people whose lives are on the line.?"