Ag safety bill ‘onerous’ and ‘offensive’ – Strankman Bill should be education oriented, not punitive

Concerns raised regarding the proposed Bill 6 Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.

By Stacey Lavallie/Black Press

Concerns are being raised that the new farm safety act, introduced in provincial legislature last week, will add mountains of red tape, deplete farmers’ financial resources, and drastically alter “farm-life” as children across the province know it.

Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, was introduced by the NDP government on Nov. 17. The act, if it passes into law, would see farms and ranches subject to Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) legislation, require farm and ranch owners to provide Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) insurance for their employees and themselves, and would see farm and ranches be accountable to employment standards and labour relations legislation.

Drumheller-Stettler MLA Rick Strankman, the agriculture critic for the opposition Wildrose Party, echoed the disappointment otherwise expressed by his colleagues about the lack of public consultation with the agricultural stakeholders across the province.

Strankman said that the manner in which the bill was proposed “has the appearance of making up rules on the fly.” With several high-profile child-fatalities in farm-related accidents in the past few months, including one this past weekend where a 10-year-old boy was crushed under a piece of farm equipment, there are concerns the party is “legislating first and consulting later.”

“(The bill) is going to be excessively onerous to farmers, I think” Strankman said. “We need to continue to educate, not legislate, toward the potential safety issues. Farmers need to be continually educated on all aspects of the agricultural arena.”

That doesn’t mean Strankman is against the concept of a farm and ranch safety bill, though he’s concerned that it has been drafted by a party without anyone “with (farming) dirt under their nails.” Alberta is currently the only Canadian province without one, and since Bill 6 passed first reading last week, Strankman’s been looking into the legislation in neighbouring provinces.

To the east, Saskatchewan has had farm safety bills for roughly three decades, but according to Strankman, a lot of the small family farmers thought the laws only applied to the larger operations.

“The farmers that I contacted thought they were exempt,” he said. “They’re not, they’re just not policed.”

He said it wasn’t very practical for the small family farmer, whose office was often the kitchen table, to have to complete and keep the necessary paperwork.

British Columbia also has OH&S and WCB legislation for its agricultural industry.

“From what we can see and it’s early information there doesn’t seem to be a difference before the legislation and after,” Strankman said of the Pacific province.

That has him optimistic that legislature, if crafted properly, would help and not hinder Albertan farmers and ranchers. Early review of Bill 6 has him concerned, however, that the bill is heavy on punitive actions and added bureaucracy rather than education.

The measures laid out in Bill 6 “may be offensive to the small family farmer,” Strankman noted, adding that the larger farming operations, like large feedlots, chicken and hog operations are already voluntarily working with OH&S and WCB, since it makes sense to protect themselves using the legislated standards.

A more education-oriented bill would work, Strankman said, much like seatbelt legislation worked when first introduced.

“More and more people now put on their seatbelts because they realize the safety aspect,” he explained. “Not because they could be fined.”

As always, though, there are people who won’t wear their seatbelt, and an education-oriented safety bill would still need teeth for the farmers who won’t adapt. Striking a balance between teeth and excessive paperwork is the key, Strankman said.

Another concern expressed by Strankman, his party and many agricultural stakeholders is how the bill will affect children on the farm.

“It’s a normal lifestyle for kids,” Strankman said. “There’s lots of children on the farms who go out and feed and water the animals, work with 4-H animals, and so on.”

Under the legislation, he’s not sure how the regulations will play out, either positively or negatively, for children, and that requires more study.

The Wildrose Party is hoping the bill will now go to committee where it can be studied and ammendments recommended.

“We want to debate it at length,” he said. “If we do get to go to committee and provide ammendments, then the government can be held to task at that level.”

With a majority, and the NDP can choose to ignore recommendations by the opposition MLAs; however, the process does allow MLAs like Strankman ensure the “arguments have been provided on behalf of the people who democratically elected us.”