Alberta’s Farmworker Fatality Problem

Lindsay Beyerstein

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Farming is dangerous work. Farmworkers grapple with toxic chemicals, testy livestock, powerful tools, and heavy machinery. They may be crushed, mangled, suffocated, trampled, or poisoned at work.

Between 14 and 25 people are killed each year working the land in Alberta, Canada, accoring to the Alberta Federation of Labor. Last year 13 people died, down from 23 the previous year. By some estimates, farming is the most dangerous occupation in Alberta. Yet agricultural workers lack the occupational safety and health protections that other workers take for granted. Farmers have been exempted from Alberta’s Occupational Safety and Health Act since 1977, but unions are putting pressure on the provincial government to reform the legislation.

The tragic death of 35-year-old feedlot worker Kevan John Chandler has been a catalyst for change. On June 18, 2006, Chandler was crushed to death in a grain silo he was assigned to clean out. An inquiry into Chandler’s death recommended that farmworkers be covered under Occupational Safety and Health Act. The United Food and Commercial Workers is now mounting a campaign to cover farmers under that legislation.

Alberta is the only Canadian province that doesn’t offer these basic protections to farmworkers. This spring, Agriculture Alberta announced $715,000 worth of grants to local agricultural societies to improve farm safety. But skeptics like agricultural journalist Will Verboeven worry that the money will simply be an excuse for the provincial government to ignore the much broader problem. 

Predictably, the agricultural industry is balking at the proposed changes. It says that occupational safety laws designed for offices and factories shouldn’t apply to family farms. Verboeven responds in an op/​ed in the Stettler Times:

The industry excuse is that agriculture is unique in that much of farm and ranch work is done by family members. That is true — but is the assumption that somehow family labour is less valuable than hired labour? Yes, they labour under the perception that they are contributing to the economic well-being of the family farm and are somehow rewarded in other ways.

Be that as it may — it in a way diminishes the value of family labour, particularly that of older members, whose contribution can be significant.

The judge who investigated Chandler’s death recommended that paid farmworkers be covered like every other employee, but that the existing exemptions for farm family members remain in place. People who merely live on farms and happen to get hurt there shouldn’t be covered by occupational health laws, however, many of those family members are also farmworkers in their own right. Those workers deserve full protection.

That children are exempt from child labor laws for farmwork is an anachronism in its own right. If parents want to put their own children to work on the farm, those kids deserve the same protections as any other worker.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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