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Alberta farm safety legislation to get UCP overhaul over the summer

The divisive farm safety legislation that stoked anti-NDP sentiment and caused demonstrations throughout Alberta is getting an overhaul by the UCP government.

Bill 6 decried as an unnecessary overreach by an ideologically driven NDP

Farmers unload canola while harvesting on a farm near Beiseker, Alta. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

The divisive farm safety legislation that stoked anti-NDP sentiment and caused demonstrations throughout Alberta is getting an overhaul by the UCP government.

The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act came into effect Jan. 1, 2016, under the previous NDP government.

It was almost immediately decried as an unnecessary overreach by an ideologically driven NDP government. 

Despite efforts to improve the legislation, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said it failed to make the mark.

"I just think that the amount of energy and time and frustration that was caused from the original Bill 6 — it was just was a complete disaster," Dreeshen said Monday during an interview with CBC News. "I just think that will historically go down as one of the worst pieces of legislation, and introduction of legislation, in the history of the province."

Among other measures, the NDP farm safety bill required all farms and ranches with paid non-family workers to carry Workers' Compensation Board insurance, regardless of whether they already had private insurance.

Occupational health and safety officers were allowed to conduct on-site investigations of serious injuries or fatalities; new employment standards specific to farms and ranches that covered schedules and holiday pay came into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. 

Getting rid of 'red tape'

The new UCP  Farm Freedom and Safety Act will eliminate "red tape" and allow farmers to operate their businesses in a manner that's practical while instilling a culture of safety, said Dreeshen. 

He said he has been told at meetings that if farmers were audited today many would not be in compliance with the current legislation.

"One farmer told me that it's like a tractor manual that's a couple inches thick. If you never actually read it and just toss it under your seat, there's not a lot of safety on that farm."

An online survey launched last week by the province asked respondents if small farms should be exempt from some safety regulations, and even how to define what qualifies as a small farm.

It also sought feedback on whether all farms and ranches should be covered by WCB or if producers should have the option to carry private insurance. 

Dreeshen said he expects to hear that farmers are willing to have mandatory insurance but want the option of choosing between WCB or a private carrier. 

The WCB has 4,191 registered agriculture sector accounts and there have been 174 injury lost-time claims to date in 2019, spokesperson Ben Dille said in an email.

Worried about changes

Eric Musekamp, head of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta, was a strong proponent of the changes brought in by the previous NDP government.

Farm safety advocate Eric Musekamp worries that rollbacks to farm safety will be bad for farmers and their employees. (CBC News)

"The minister needs to get the big picture," said Musekamp. "He does not seem to have a complete grip on the file, in my view."

Musekamp said more consultation is always good, except when it's designed to deliver a predetermined outcome.

"Unfortunately the signals sent by this minister basically indicate that he's going to take some unilateral action such as exempting workers on smaller farms and removing the mandatory requirement for WCB." 

Musekamp said he fears that workers and employers will be at risk if small farms are exempt from most safety rules.

"Those employers that would be exempt are really being sold a bill of goods because they are still responsible and liable for protecting their workers," he said.

The new farm safety will be introduced during the fall session of the legislature, set to begin in October.

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