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Alberta farmers want workplace rules done right

Agricultural employees to be included under work and safety rules

Some Alberta farm groups say they generally accept including agricultural employees under work and safety rules but are concerned about the fine print and how the NDP government is going to roll out the changes.

The province is currently the only jurisdiction in Canada without employment standards coverage for farm and ranch workers.

Many of the province's 43,000 producers are worried about how the proposed legislation is going to affect their day-to-day operations, said Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture.

"We need rules that apply to agriculture — the ones that apply to construction or oilfields — you just can't move them over onto agriculture and expect to have a good result,'' Jacobson said Wednesday from his grain and oilseed farm near Enchant, Alta.

"The people who the government hires to be inspectors have to have some knowledge of agriculture.''

The changes include making workers' compensation board coverage mandatory for farm workers on Jan 1.

Alberta is one of four provinces without WCB coverage for farmers. The others are Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island.

The agricultural sector would also no longer be exempt from occupational health and safety (OHS) rules and would be subject to employment standards covering areas such as hours, vacation pay and minimum wages.

Jacobson said the government must ensure that farmers and ranchers understand the implications of the changes.

"We'd like to see a gradual implementation of the OHS changes, supported by extensive producer education and awareness,'' he said.

The government plans to hold public meetings around the province about the bill and to phase in some of the regulations next year.

Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers, said it supports the idea of requiring producers to have baseline insurance coverage for employees but it does not support mandatory WCB coverage.

He said some producers already have such coverage and it hasn't worked well.

Smith said awareness, education and training are the best ways to improve workplace safety on farms and ranches.

He said changes to employment standards should reflect the diverse nature of agricultural work.

"Legislative changes in themselves do not make workplaces more healthy and safe,'' he said. ``We hope that the government ensures that the changes to employment standards occur only after there has been sufficient consultation.''

Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said farmers take the safety of their families and employees very seriously.

He said most support ending the exemption from workplace rules and farmers want a say in the wording of regulations to help ensure they are relevant and practical.

"We are working with the government to implement these changes in a way that makes sense for our farms and our farmers,'' he said.

Steve said it is important for farmers to attend town hall meetings to learn more about the changes.

Under the bill, Alberta investigators would be allowed to look into serious injuries or deaths on the commercial portion of farms.

The government says 25 people died from farm-related accidents in 2014 _ nine more than the previous year.

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