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Farm injury data supports mandatory safety rules and injury compensation

In 2016, workers’ compensation coverage for paid, non-family farm workers became mandatory in Alberta. This change was part of a sweeping and controversial reform of employment law in agriculture enacted by Bill 6 (Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act) in late 2015. Prior to 2016, workers’ compensation coverage was optional and only about half of agricultural employers enrolled their workers in it.

One effect of this long-standing exemption from workers’ compensation was that comprehensive statistics about occupational injury (which are most often derived from injury claims data) were unavailable for agriculture. We now have two and a half years of claims data available, and this data reveals some interesting things about occupational injury among paid farm workers in Alberta.

The data

The following analysis uses 2017 data (the last full year available) from the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) about the agriculture and forestry industry. (The data for 2018 shows similar patterns but is incomplete.) I have removed from this data set all claims made by workers in logging, timber management, and riding academies as these sub-industries are not agriculture as we commonly understand it. I have also removed two small agricultural sub-industries (agri-tourism and llama/alpaca producers) for which 2017 claims data was unavailable, likely due to small numbers. These industries have an estimated total of five employees, so the effect of their removal is insignificant.

Mandatory coverage makes occupational injuries more visible

Not surprisingly, making workers’ compensation mandatory has increased participation in workers’ compensation for paid farm workers. In 2017, 3,847 employers enrolled their employees in workers’ compensation. This is up from 1,756 employers at the end of 2015, when participation was still voluntary. As of 2017, approximately 11,141 employees had guaranteed wage-loss, medical-aid, and vocational-rehabilitation benefits if they were injured on the job. (Comparator data for 2015 was not available.)

Again, not surprisingly, there was an increase in injury claims by agricultural workers between 2015 and 2017. In 2017, there were 738 injury claims made by farm workers and accepted by the WCB. In 2015, the WCB accepted a total of 339 injury claims by farm workers.

The doubling in claims between 2015 and 2017 is broadly commensurate with the increase in employers who enrolled their employees in workers’ compensation. Prior to 2016, approximately half of farm workers’ occupational injuries would have either been claimed under private insurance or simply not claimed at all (with the costs of the injury absorbed by the health care system and/or workers themselves). Essentially, mandatory workers’ compensation has made the existing level of occupational injury in agriculture more visible.

Claims data still under-reports injury numbers

While mandatory workers’ compensation has made agricultural injuries more visible, it is important to be mindful that workers’ compensation claims represent a minority of all occupational injuries. Research in Alberta has confirmed significant under-claiming of compensable injuries, a trend found across Canada and in other countries.

Workers’ compensation claims are supposed to be filed for injuries that require treatment by a doctor, modified work duties, or time off beyond the date of injury. Other, typically minor, injuries are not reportable.

Province-wide, workers only file claims for only about 30% of reportable injuries. Under-reporting reflects a combination of factors:

  • some workers are unaware of their rights,
  • some workers don't think their injuries warrant reporting, and
  • some workers are pressured by their employer not to report, while other workers fear retaliation for doing so.

Additionally, some injuries—such as occupational illnesses—also have long latency periods, and workers may be unaware that their illness was caused by a long-ago occupational exposure.

Of the 738 accepted agricultural injury claims in 2017, 409 were disabling injury claims (meaning the worker was injured seriously enough to require time off work or modified duties). The remaining 329 claims would entail only medical-treatment costs.

Accounting for unreported disabling injuries in agriculture suggests the true number of injuries is likely to be in the range of 1,200 disabling injuries per year. That is to say, roughly 1 in 9 farm workers is likely going to experience a serious occupational injury each year.

Extrapolating from this number suggests the total number of agricultural workers who experienced a major or minor injury in 2017 is likely to be about 3,750—or about 1 in 3 farm workers. We should be cautious using this number because it is an extrapolation, but it sounds about right. That 1 in 3 farm workers experiences an injury is higher than the Alberta average (which is about 1 in 5), and likely reflects the greater risk of injury in agriculture than in other industries.

The most serious injuries are lost-time injuries (where the worker required time off from work). In 2017, there were 321 accepted lost-time claims in agriculture for a total of 11,821 days of missed work (an average of 36.8 days per injury). The agricultural sub-sectors where the most disabling injuries occurred are those that typically involve working with large animals (e.g., feedlots, beef and hog production, stock yards, and dairy farms).

Implications of mandatory workers’ compensation in agriculture

The decision by the Alberta government to make workers’ compensation coverage mandatory for paid, non-family farm workers has had three significant implications.

First, the high level of injury among Alberta farm workers is now more visible because the main source of administrative data about occupational injuries (i.e., workers’ compensation claims) is more comprehensive. This data broadly mirrors what we see in other provinces in terms of the risk of injury for farm workers (i.e., higher than in most other industries) and the main sources of agricultural injuries (e.g., contact with animals and equipment). 

Establishing clear evidence about the dangerous nature of agricultural work in Alberta will be important if the United Conservative Party wins the 2019 election and Jason Kenney follows through with his promise to repeal the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. Such evidence can then be used to bolster a constitutional challenge (using Sections 7 and 15 of the Charter) to excluding farm workers from the ambit of workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety (OHS).

Second, workers are now more likely to get adequate compensation for occupational injuries than they were prior to 2016. While the WCB is not a perfect organization, the benefits it provides to workers are superior to the laissez-faire arrangements that existed under the previous Progressive Conservative government. For example, a 2015 report commissioned by the former PC government revealed private insurance was both unevenly provided and often inadequate in terms of the benefits it provided to injured workers.

Requiring employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance ensures that the cost of injury is being borne by those who are responsible for the injuries, instead of externalizing the cost onto taxpayers and/or workers. At the same time, mandatory workers’ compensation frees employers from additional liability associated with occupational injuries.

That said, under-reporting of injury remains an issue. Additional efforts to make farm workers aware of their rights and the long-term importance of filing claims will be necessary to address under-reporting. It will also likely prove necessary for the WCB to meaningfully address claims suppression by employers.

Third, the high rate of injury for farm workers suggests that requiring employers to abide by Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Code (effective December 1, 2018) is a reasonable and necessary requirement. While the application of the OHS Code has been contentious (and in some ways it is under-inclusive), the decision to apply the code represents a significant improvement in protections for farm workers.

The effectiveness of the OHS Code at reducing the number of agricultural injuries will turn upon the vigor of government enforcement. Recent research suggests that only half of Alberta employers are compliant with the most basic OHS requirements. This reflects that employers presently face little risk of being caught breaking the rules and, if they are, little risk of meaningful sanction. Additional enforcement resources will be required.

In additional to meaningful enforcement, it will be necessary for the government to educate farm workers about their safety rights and how to use them. While industry safety associations tend to do a good job in helping employers to understand their OHS obligations, these associations tend to ignore the needs of workers. This educational work will fall to the government and/or community groups.

Overall, despite the near-hysterical reaction to Bill 6, the implementation of mandatory workers’ compensation coverage has yielded significant improvements in injury surveillance and compensation. WCB data also provides evidence that supports the subsequent implementation of occupational health and safety rules. Notable by its absence is any evidence that extending basic workplace rights to farm workers drove even a single producer out of business.

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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