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Farm worker injury study bolsters arguments for farm safety legislation

Earlier this week, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) released a 2015 study of farm worker injury insurance conducted on behalf of the Conservative government in 2014/15 and obtained by the AFL through a freedom of information request. The crux of the report is that the former Progressive Conservative government knew farm work was very dangerous and that many farmers provided inadequate insurance coverage for their workers.

The study estimated there are about 2,000 lost-time injuries per year in agriculture. Less serious injuries which did not require time off work were not estimated. Of these 2,000 injuries, 700 would entail a loss of income to the worker of more than $3,000. Of these 700, 50 would result in a loss of income of six or more months due to potentially permanent disablement. The report also estimated there would be 18-20 work-related fatalities per year in agriculture.

Looking just at paid farm employees (about 40% of all farm workers), we would expect to see about 800 time-loss injuries, 280 of which would entail income loss of over $3,000, and 20 very serious injuries. There would also be 7-8 fatalities among paid employees. Paid employees matter because it was this group that the NDP government eventually made subject to Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, which included mandated Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) coverage.

The report then compares WCB premiums with comparable private-sector premiums and finds that WCB costs 40-50% less than private-sector insurance. Factoring in the number of workers changes the pricing picture a bit: farms of fewer than 10 employees are better off with WCB coverage, but as the number of employees increases above 10, private rates become more competitive. Given that, it's important to note that most Alberta farms with paid workers have fewer than 10 employees.

Looking at farm insurance practices (and acknowledging the sample size is small), the study found 40% of mid-sized farms (with 1.5 employees on average) had no disability insurance. This means about 6,000 farm workers had no coverage. About 10% of large farms (with six employees on average) had no disability coverage, meaning another roughly 2,100 employees with no coverage. Even among farms with coverage, the report found accidental death insurance was inadequate to provide for the families of over 35,000 farm workers if the worker was killed.

Applying these levels of insurance coverage to injury rates, the report projects 92 farm employees would experience uncompensated lost-time injuries per year, of which 32 would be off work for longer than one month. Uninsured income loss is expected to cost between $3 and $4 million annually. On top of that, most of the costs of medical treatment associated with all non-WCB covered injuries would be borne by the taxpayer, although this amount was not estimated by the report.

The study tells us four things:

  1. The former Progressive Conservative government had evidence that 8,000 farm employees were uninsured or under-insured against injuries but took no action to make workers’ compensation coverage mandatory. It is unclear why the previous government made this policy choice, but I suspect it was about fear of losing the rural votes and seats. Given the reaction to the NDP government's Bill 6, this fear was likely reasonable, yet that hardly justifies leaving nearly 100 injured farm workers and their families each year without financial support.
  2. The narrative that “farmers take care of their own” is not fully true. While the report does suggest some farmers may provide some wage support to uninsured farm employees who were unable to work due to injury, there is no evidence of that. What there is evidence of is that, left to their own devices, medium and large farm employers left more than 8,000 farm workers with no disability coverage. And they left over 35,000 farms workers with no or inadequate accidental death coverage.
  3. Farmers' lack of adequate insurance coverage for their workers is not surprising. Like all employers, farm operators are driven by the profit imperative and consequently seek to minimize labour costs. The most practical way to ensure that all farmers provide adequate injury insurance to their employees is to mandate workers' compensation insurance — as the government does for virtually every other employer in Alberta. This is what the government eventually did in Bill 6.
  4. For all but the biggest producers, the cost of workers’ compensation insurance is the same or less than comparable private insurance. This suggests that complaints about the cost of WCB insurance are coming from a) farm operators who otherwise would not carry insurance for their workers, b) those who don’t understand the actual cost of WCB coverage, c) the very largest of producers (who are most able to afford WCB coverage), or d) people whose opposition to workers’ compensation has nothing to do with the cost of insurance.

Photo credit: Richard Carter under a Creative Commons licence

Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace injury, farm workers, and child labour in Alberta. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2010), co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016) and co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016).

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