The leader of Manitoba's largest farm organization has taken to calling himself a "poster child" for farm safety this year, and it's not because he sits on a provincial advisory council for workplace safety.
Doug Chorney nearly died last spring after experiencing a seemingly innocuous squirt of liquid nitrogen fertilizer while decoupling a pressurized hose; it was absorbed through his clothes, and sent his body into a tailspin with severe dehydration.
Chorney, who heads up the Keystone Agricultural Producers, was well aware of the dangers of anhydrous ammonia gas. But the 49-year-old Selkirk farmer didn't realize liquid nitrogen can lethally draw moisture from the body until he wound up in hospital a day-and-a-half later with a high fever, low blood pressure and flu-like symptoms that initially had doctors flummoxed.
It was a wake-up call for Chorney, who was already a strong advocate for improving farm-safety awareness. Farmyards are about as unforgiving as an industrial workplace when it comes to making mistakes.
In fact, the farm is now officially considered an industrial workplace, a reality of which much of the farming community remains woefully --or wilfully -- unaware.
The reason is simple. Statistically speaking, agricultural accidents accounted for 26 per cent of the province's "acute-hazard fatalities" between 2000 and 2012. Agriculture is the single biggest category of workplace deaths, followed by transportation at 24 per cent and construction at 17 per cent.
Up until about five years ago, the farming sector lived in its own little bubble when it came to workplace-safety regulations and enforcement. The exemption from provincial employment and workplace-safety standards dated back to the days when farms were run by individual farmers and their families.
"There were basically no rules," says Chorney. There were no set hours of work, no overtime, or holidays. "We didn't even have to pay minimum wages on the farm."
A farm employer could voluntarily pay into workers' compensation, and many did. But most did not. That all changed in 2009 when farms were rolled into workplace, health and safety rules under two categories: farm workers in enclosed facilities and farm workers who work outside in weather-dependent jobs.
The enclosed workers are now treated similarly to factory workers, whereas the restrictions on hours of work and overtime are more lenient for farm workers in weather-dependent roles.
Audits and enforcement measures have become more common. And the reality of that is hitting hard for operations that have come under scrutiny. A potato farm in western Manitoba was fined $50,000 last year after a 15-year-old worker was seriously injured after straddling a conveyor belt and becoming entangled. The employer was found negligent for failing to ensure workers followed safe procedures for getting from one side of the conveyor to the other.
Even if farm employers haven't registered with the Workers Compensation Board, as is now required, they fall under its jurisdiction if a worker becomes injured.
Chorney said this is one area in which ignorance is not bliss, because the fines can be steep. "I know there are still people who are not registered," he said.
Exemptions still apply for immediate farm family members, but the rules apply to all other workers, even for the corps of casual workers who relish escaping the city every fall to help out friends or distant relatives on the farm during harvest.
Hiring youth has also become more complicated. Special permits are required for youth under the age of 16 who are not immediate family members, and they must be paid minimum wage. Chorney says that has had the effect of reducing the jobs available to rural youth.
As much as farmers love to grumble about excessive regulation and enforcement, no one is arguing farms shouldn't be made into a safer place to work -- least of all Chorney. He points out the WCB coverage eliminates the civil liability a farm employer could otherwise face in the event of an accident.
But generations of doing things the old-fashioned way have left the farming community struggling to embrace the industrial safety culture. "Now we have a lot of catching up to do," Chorney says.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com.