Friday, December 3, 2010

Policy: Farm Safety Gridlock

This morning, two farm workers were electrocuted, apparently because a grain auger they were moving struck an overhead power line. Occupational health and safety won’t be investigating because farm workers are excluded from the ambit of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

And the Workers’ Compensation Act.

And much of the Employment Standards Code.

And the Labour Relations Code.

After years of lobbying and judicial commentary that such exclusions are unconstitutional and/or without any good reason, the Alberta government has announced changes. Well, sort of.

In lieu of setting safety standards and enforcing them, industry and government reps will get together to figure out how to enhance farm safety training and education.

This all sounds nice. But it ignores that unsafe work is one manifestation of the broader conflicting interests of workers and employers. Unsafe work is usually faster and cheaper for employers than safe work—because unsafe work externalizes some costs of production onto employees in the form of workplace injuries.

This is, indeed, the reason why we have occupational health and safety laws in the first place. Education alone simply does not work because it (rather unrealistically) expects employers to act contrary to their own economic interests.

That employers have little appetite for regulation comes through quite clearly in the comments in the government’s recent consultation (mostly with employers).

“(Employers) warned the government to be careful not to create bigger problems in attempt to enhance health and safety.”

“Many (employers) commented that education is a better way to reduce farm accidents rather than regulations. A couple thought that voluntary education would be met with much less resistance and more acceptance.”

Such comments are hardly surprising and neither is the government’s focus on education rather than regulation. Education is relatively cheap. Education has limited impact upon farmers--who have traditionally supported the conservative government and who have, in turn, been rewarded through the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries and exclusion from the regulatory regime. And education sets up a “blame the worker” situation when “educated workers” get injured (conveniently ignoring it is the employer who determines what will be done, when, where and how).

What this suggests is that short of a court challenge about the exclusion of agricultural workers from virtually all of the basic workplace rights that every other worker has or a change in government, there is no prospect for meaningfully improving farm worker safety in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

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