Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bill 6 OHS recommendations

In late October, Alberta released for public comment the reports of four working groups that examined the application of occupational health and safety rules for paid employees in the farm and ranch sector. The reports are available here. Feedback is due January 15.

The reports make a large number of recommendations (mostly to adopt the existing rules in the OHS Code). There has been some media coverage of the recommendations, mostly centering on seatbelts, subsidies and bathrooms.

I think there are two really interesting issues that are, so far, below the radar. The first is the recommendation (across all Working groups reports but especially group 6) that the government established an industry safety association. My understanding is that the AgCoalition (perhaps through a separate society) is positioning itself to be this association. Whether the AgCoalition (which finds most of its support among large producers) would be successful in engaging smaller operators is an open question. Another interesting question is the degree to which farm workers would have any meaningful involvement in such an association.

The recommendation also suggests that the association be government funded. One effect of government funding is that often constrains the desire and ability of the funded group to act in a partisan manner. This happens through a couple of mechanism. First, the group becomes dependent on government largesse (as well as subject to regulation) so open opposition entails more risk. Second, individuals within the organization start to buy into the goals and norms of workplace safety, particularly over time as the safety keeners tend to persist and eventually dominate the organization.

It will be fascinating to see if a political saw-off emerges, wherein the Ag Coalition gets government funding and, in turn, basically accepts Bill 6 as a done deal. There was a very interesting interview on Alberta Primetime a few weeks back where Lynn Jacobsen (President of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture) was asked about the UCP’s pledge to repeal Bill 6:
I guess I’m getting tired of everybody playing politics around this issue. I think that statement is directed related to politics and is not related to some facts and what is actually going on in the agricultural community.

…What we have found out… before we had this legislation, farms in Alberta didn’t have a lot of coverage for their workers. We did some straw polls… and it seemed like maybe 30-35% of producers had any type of protection for anybody working for there. That is a huge issue that we don’t want to go back to.

People without coverage and basic legislation they have to follow and rules and workmen’s comps—people lose their farms over accidents and that. We don’t want to go back to that era.

…I think it is a little foolish of the opposition parties to say we’re just going to cancel it because it is an attack on farmers. Really it isn’t an attack on farmers. It is maybe bringing labour on our farms up into the 20th century.
The AFA has always been a bit more reasonable on farm safety than other groups, but this still seemed like a real softening of resistance among a key producer group.

The other issue will be around legacy equipment. Both Working Groups 3 and 4 are recommending that farm equipment in operation one year after any change to the OHS Code is made (so-called legacy equipment) should be exempt from certain requirements. The key requirements are around equipment being operated, modified or otherwise used in compliance with manufacturer’s specification (although this legacy issue comes up in a couple of places, such as having adequate roll-over and falling object protections and safeguards).

This is a complicated issue because farms operate equipment that may not have manufacturers specs, may have been modified contrary to them, may be used in ways not anticipated by the manufacturer (similar to off-label use of drugs), may be home built, or may be subject to “emergency repairs” in the field during a busy season. There is also a sense that manufacturer specs are often very conservative because they are a means by which manufacturers avoid liability if something goes wrong.

Particularly worrisome was Working Group 4’s recommendation for legacy exemptions on roll-over protections and falling objects protections on mobile powered equipment (e.g., tractors) as well as safeguards on equipment. Basically, this recommendation would mean farms could continue to use equipment of questionable safety until it breaks down.

The death of Stephen Murray Gibson illustrates the consequences of a permanent exemption around meeting manufacturer specs and other standards. Gibson was killed in 2015 after getting entangled in an unshielded power take off (PTO). (A PTO is a drive-shaft that spins at high speed to transfers power from an engine to some other equipment.)

Fatigue was probably an issue in this fatality (he had been working 28 straight days). But an important root cause was the unguarded PTO. According to the fatality inquiry:
Mr. Hamilton bought from a neighbour a 40- or 50-year old grain roller and PTO. The roller had three safety shields on it; the PTO, although it would originally have had a safety shield, at the time Mr. Hamilton acquired it, did not. No manual came with the equipment, either.
Given that farm equipment can often stay in use for decades, recommendations allowing continued non-compliance around legacy equipment are a recipe for exposing generations of farm workers to unremediated hazards that will kill some of them. I can’t imagine the government going for that. Yet, bringing unsafe equipment up to code (or replacing it) will entail significant costs. If the government declines this recommendation, I suspect there will be a lot of complaining.

One option it to create a grace period (to spread costs over time). Another is to provide some sort of safety subsidy programs to help offset the cost of compliance (Working Group 5 suggests this for roll over protection). Subsidies are common in agriculture (e.g., crop insurance) but, like government funding of ag associations, they often have other implications. For example, they (at least implicitly) require farmers to recognize the government’s authority over matters of farm safety. And they give governments leverage that may moderate farmers’ behaviour.

It will be very interesting to watch these two issues play out over time.

-- Bob Barnetson

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