Running a-fowl of OHS: a cautionary tale

A recent case from Saskatchewan serves as a reminder that legal exceptions to workplace legislation have their limits.

Running a-fowl of OHS: a cautionary tale

Occupational health and safety (“OHS”) policy has been a hot topic in Saskatchewan as of late. Not only has the regime received a large overhaul under the new Saskatchewan Employment Act, but a recent news item has sparked hot debate within the province over governmental regulation of family farms.

On August 5, a provincial OHS officer arrived at a small family farm near Endeavour, Saskatchewan after receiving a complaint related to labour practices involving young persons. This particular family farm raises, butchers, and processes free-range chickens “from field to fork”, and all members of the family and some of the neighbours kids have helped with these farming practices in the past. The processing facility at the farm is small and operated manually, unlike large industrialized facilities that are almost entirely mechanized.

While young farm workers in Saskatchewan do receive some legal exceptions (for example, farm children under the age of 16 in this province are allowed to drive a tractor), The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations explicitly forbids employers from allowing young persons under the age of 16 to work “in a production process in a meat, fish, or poultry processing plant.” As such, the OHS officer determined that the farm was in violation of the law.

After the story broke, the Saskatchewan government stepped in with what Minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Don Morgan called a “common sense” solution: children of the farm owners could continue working on the farm, including in the processing facility, however no other children under the age of 16 will be allowed to work within the processing facility. On August 8, the Minister said “We’re going to treat this as an extension of the family farm. For the immediate family members, they don’t require a permit or anything else. They can continue to work. What we’ve decided to do here is just take a common sense approach and say this is part of a family farm operation. We’re treating it as a family farm. We’re going into harvest time and the message we want to get to everybody is rather than look at regulations, look at safety. Pay attention, use equipment carefully and wisely.” He also stressed that OHS officials had looked into the safety record of the farming operation and had found it to be spotless.

While the family farm in question has termed the outcome to be ‘win-win’ for everyone, employers of all sizes must be aware of the provincial laws, including employment standards and OHS regulations, in operating their businesses. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch - consult a labour and employment lawyer if you are worried about compliance under the new OHS regime in Saskatchewan. 

For more information and advice contact a Miller Thomson lawyer at: [email protected].

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