Farm Safety in Every Language — Help for Keeping Seasonal Workers Safe


Owen RobertsRemember seasoned sergeant Phil Esterhaus (actor Michael Conrad) in Hill St. Blues, who warmly but firmly reminded the squad “Let’s be careful out there!” as they filed out of his daily briefing? Well, the same applies to farming – it’s safer than police work, but it certainly has its hazards, not the least of which is poor communication between workers.

And communication is made worse when those workers don’t understand the same language.

That’s what a significant number of Canadian farms will encounter as soon as this month, as seasonal farm labourers start arriving from all over the world. Their arrival here is generally associated with planting or harvest, but in fruit-producing areas, they’ll be here anytime now, to start helping with other manual labour jobs, particularly pruning.

Seasonal farm workers deserve our thanks and support. They provide the manual labour that Canadians shun. The efforts of workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, in particular, the two biggest sources of the approximately 18,000 seasonal workers in Canada, have become an intrinsic and essential part of our country’s farming fabric.

Without them, the local food phenomenon would face a real sustainability challenge. There seems to be many farmers willing to grow local food, but they have a hard time finding people to tend to it and harvest it. Once, seasonal farm workers were considered job thieves, working for peanuts, taking work away from willing and able Canadians.

But no more. Canadians may be able to handle manual labour, but they sure just aren’t willing — even at the competitive wages that all farm workers are supposed to receive here, regardless of nationality.

The bottom line is that the work needs to get done, on the proliferation of small farms that are cashing in on the local food movement, and on larger farms that are increasingly turning to automation but likewise have more labour needs as they grow. And in many cases, seasonal farm workers can help.

A significant number of the 10,000 Mexican farm labourers who arrive in Canada come from agricultural and rural backgrounds. That means they have a head start when it comes to understanding farming. Language, though, is indeed an issue.

Unlike those workers from Caribbean countries, English is not likely to be part of Spanish-speaking Mexican farm workers’ culture.  And the ability to communicate with them (and vice versa) is vital, beginning with workplace safety.

In Ontario, that’s where Workplace Safety and Prevention Services kicks in. Last winter, the Guelph regional office held focus groups with a cross-section of farm group leaders and employers, along with members from the Mexican consulate. Their goal was to determine the kind of modern workplace safety collateral that would be effective for Spanish-speaking workers.

That effort, with support from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the federal government, has now resulted in a restocked, rebranded collection of Spanish and English farm safety training tools, coming soon to

Central to these tools is an 18-minute video in English and Spanish called “Orientation for Seasonal Workers in the Agricultural Industry.” It gives viewers an idea about what they’ll be doing in the field, and how to do it safely. (The video is here).

The collection also includes 16 conversation guides called  “tailgate talks” which address specific hazards. Supervisors use them to deliver awareness training onsite – maybe as workers are gathered around the tailgate (thus the name), before the day’s work begins.

Another part of the collection is a three-hour program with an array of how-to visuals that employers can use to teach Spanish-speaking employees job safety measures.  The idea is for seasonal workers’ employers to use the material as a component of their overall health and safety training program.

Dean Anderson, Guelph-based agriculture program manager for Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, says the package is heavy on visuals because they can be helpful when language is a problem.

Part of the emphasis is on preventing strains and sprains, given the number of muscle-related injuries agricultural workers experience. Repetitive motions, improper lifting and bending and failure to limber up before starting work all contribute to the problem, regardless of where a farm labourer’s passport is from.

It’s a message all farmers could take to heart.  This Spanish translation initiative makes agricultural workplaces safer for employers and employees alike, regardless of nationality.

So, when it comes to farm safety: ¡Ten cuidado – let’s be careful out there.

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