Friday, February 15, 2013

Premier on farm safety case?

On February 8, the Farm Workers Union of Alberta issued a press release indicating Alberta Premier Alison Redford had promised to personally work on Alberta’s farm safety issues. Below, you can see Redford and Eric Musekamp (president of the FUA) shaking hands on February 6.

It is a bit hard to follow who’s on first in farm safety for the government so here is a quick summary:

Back in 2011, Redford promised to take action on farm safety. In February 2012, the government got a report from its latest farm safety stalling consultation (10 years at least two consultations into this issue…) and promptly buried started to review it (very slowly though, as it still hasn't been released). A bootlegged version shows it recommended no real change, not surprising since the vast majority of members were farmers or ag-business types.

In December, Redford told the Edmonton Journal, “We’re going to put in place the right approaches at the right time” although she declined to say what “the right approach” is, or when “the right time” will be. She also said “We’re not going to find ways to avoid making commitments, but we are going to do the right thing and sometimes those are short term, sometimes they’re medium term and sometimes they’re longer term.” Whatever that means.

Then, in January, the government confirmed no legislation would be forthcoming in the spring session (so now we know what it means!). Then, in February, the premier announces she's taking a personal hand in the file. I presume she is earnest in her concerns. But what “taking a personal hand” means is a total mystery. It sounds encouraging (which may be the political purpose) but there is no specific promise or deadline for action.

While Alberta farm workers continue to have the unique privilege of working without basic safety rights (like the right to know about workplace hazards or refuse unsafe work), a couple of new studies on farm safety have just been published.

In “Childhood agricultural injuries: An update for clinicians” (published in Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health), the authors examine US childhood ag injuries and conclude: 
Agricultural injuries follow predictable patterns and are largely preventable. …Since rural children may be placed in harm’s way because of economic necessity and entrenched cultural traditions, strategies to effectively remove the child from the hazardous agricultural work environment are paramount. These include increased options for off-site child care, safe play areas on farms, and enhanced child labor laws. …Research has shown that education alone is not effective in changing behavior, and voluntary guidelines are often ignored.
In “Economic worry and the presence of safety hazards on farms” (published in Accident Analysis and Safety), the authors examined the interaction of economic pressure and safety on Saskatchewan farms and conclude:
“We observed that financial conditions on farms appear to contribute to the decisions that farm operators make about safety. …Why is economic worry associated with the presence of physical safety hazards on farms? First, farms with higher economic worry appear to be less able to invest in equipment with modern safety features. Second, economic circumstances on farms may also influence safety conditions though individual behaviours. For example, farm operators in more disadvantaged circumstances may work more hours in a fatigued state, or even de-emphasize the need for safety on the farm as one response to maximize productivity. These decisions directly affect the safety of farm workers, and also have an indirect effect on the safety of vulnerable populations such as preschoolers, teenage workers, and the elderly.”
So, economic pressure can cause farmers to attend to safety less, thereby endangering children. And child farm injuries are preventable, mostly by removing children from farm work and enforcing such laws. These conclusion are not exactly a revelation from the almighty, but perhaps provides some suggestions about protecting all farm workers from injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

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