Labour minister vows to have Alberta farm safety regulations in place by next election

Closing in on less than a year left in its mandate, the Notley NDP government has yet to implement new occupational health and safety regulations intended to make farms safer places to work.

Time is running out for the NDP government to come up with new safety regulations for paid farm workers

Since the public outcry in 2015 over the new farm safety bill, the NDP government has struck technical panels and extended the public feedback period on how occupational health and safety rules can be applied to farms and ranches. (CBC)

With its mandate winding down, Alberta's NDP government has yet to implement new occupational health and safety regulations intended to make farms safer places to work.

Labour Minister Christina Gray vows new rules will be in place before the next provincial election is held in spring 2019, but said Tuesday the government has no fixed date as to when it will happen.

The deadline for public feedback on the new farm safety rules was Jan. 15 but it has been extended by more than a month to Feb. 26. Gray said stakeholder groups — such as municipalities and agricultural societies — had asked for more time.

"Because we've just extended the consultation deadline, we need to make sure the groups that are weighing in on this have sufficient time," Gray told reporters.

The deadline for feedback on proposed occupational health and safety rules for farms has been extended to Feb. 26 to allow for more input, said Labour Minister Christina Gray. (CBC)

"We want to work with the communities to get this right," she added.

The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, passed Dec. 10, 2015, was a signature piece of legislation that immediately put Rachel Notley's new NDP government in the crosshairs of rural Albertans.

Intended to enhance the rights and working conditions of paid farm workers, Bill 6, as it was then known, resulted in angry protests at the Alberta Legislature and elsewhere in the province.

Farmers, ranchers and residents said the new rules compromised the operations of family-run farms, stripping them of autonomy.

The Official Opposition Wildrose and the PC party — now amalgamated as the new United Conservative Party (UCP) — complained that the NDP failed to consult rural residents before bringing in the sweeping changes.

UCP MLA Jason Nixon, opposition House leader and MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, is concerned that the opposition has not been allowed to take part in the community consultation.

"Our biggest concern right now is that we still don't feel the industry is being heard," Nixon said Tuesday.

Despite Gray's assurance the regulations will be in place by the time Albertans go to the polls in a general election, Nixon is doubtful that will happen.

"I feel that they've been dragging their feet," said Nixon, who thinks even some NDP MLAs aren't keen to rush the legislation through.

"My impression is that the NDP government realized they made a mistake with how they handled Bill 6, and they're scared to accelerate that situation."

Scared to upset rural Alberta

"They're scared of making huge parts of Alberta upset if they get this wrong," he added.

Technical working groups, formed in May 2016 to provide input on the new occupational health and safety rules, posted their recommendations online last fall. Since then, the public has been invited to provide feedback.

"We are also very interested in making sure we bring this to a conclusion, so we will be working with the agricultural coalition as well as the other stakeholders who have expressed interest," Gray said. "We need to keep moving this forward."

The new rules will only apply to farm and ranch operations that employ paid workers, not family members.

Alberta Liberals have also criticized the government's handling of the issue. Last fall, Calgary MLA David Swann said the technical panels appointed by the government "gave the NDP some degree of political cover."

Swann added, though, that "further action is needed now, especially since conservative factions are eager to turn back the clocks on these issues."