Canadian Poultry Magazine

Tackling Safety Issues

By André Dumont   

Features Business & Policy Trade

Industry groups in Ontario are working together to make the workplace a safer one for chicken catch

After years of going unregulated, chicken catching in Ontario is about
to become a little safer. Current efforts could lead to unprecedented
improvements in the work conditions of a job that just about nobody
wants do to.

After years of going unregulated, chicken catching in Ontario is about to become a little safer. Current efforts could lead to unprecedented improvements in the work conditions of a job that just about nobody wants do to.

Improving catcher safety while working in two- and three-storey broiler barns is the focus of industry groups in Ontario.



Late summer last year, all broiler farmers were informed by their provincial association that chickens will soon no longer be loaded off third-floor ramps. Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO) provided its members with engineer drawings for safe second-storey loading platforms and holes in the third-storey floor for catchers to hand chickens down to the second floor.

These changes are part of an industry-led initiative to address the critical fall-from-heights issue with chicken catching.

For the past two years, industry members – CFO, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), catchers, transporters, processors, safety associations – have been meeting on an ad hoc basis, as part of the Farm Standards Working Group.

OMAFRA and its poultry specialist, Al Dam, are acting as the group facilitators. Fall from heights is currently the group’s number one priority, but other issues have also come up.

“We realized that we needed to come up with a safe work practices document,” Dam says. “It’s an industry-led initiative and the Ontario Ministry of Labour likes that approach.”

There is a sense of urgency for clear guidelines on safe work practices for chicken catching and hauling. In 2006, the Ontario government adopted its Occupational Health and Safety Act, extending workplace regulations to farms. Without farm-specific regulations, Ministry of Labour agents would rely on construction and industrial safety standards when investigating farm work injuries.

In June 2009, Moonfleet Poultry Inc was fined $50,000 after accepting its responsibility for a worker injury that occurred in November 2007. The worker had fallen four metres to the ground from the top of a transport trailer, sustaining fractures to the hip and pelvis. Ministry of Labour investigators found that he had not been provided with training or supervision on the use of fall prevention when working at heights.

This accident and the resulting fine were a wake-up call for all catching crews, says Brian Herman of Brian’s Poultry Services. All crews are exposed to such fines, he says, because none provide formal safety training to their workers.

The sense of urgency was emphasized with the death of two chicken catchers in 2009, the latest fatality occurring in October, when a worker was found dead underneath a trailer’s wheels.

CFO was engaged in improving catchers’ safety before these fatalities, manager of farm services John Neil says. “The fatalities really emphasized the point that we need to take action.”

Action had also been in the planning among a number of catching company owners, who joined last year to found the Poultry Services Association (PSA). Its membership also includes transportation companies.

PSA members were quick to realize that the best way to reduce the risk of falls from heights was to stop working from the top of the trailer and off third-floor ramps. It was decided that passing chickens through a hole from the third to the second floor would be the best solution.

Most chicken farmers in Ontario have met the Dec. 31 deadline to retrofit their barns. Some have experienced delays because of the presence of birds, or because the proposed standard adjustments needed to be reviewed in order to adapt them to their barn.

“There’s no question about it, farmers are taking this seriously,” John Neil says. “Farmers recognize how serious the potential for injury is.”

Handing chickens down to the second floor involves more labour, Herman points out. An extra man must now receive the chickens and hand them to the worker loading the trailer. Catching crews have yet to figure out how they will factor this cost into their billing.

This new work practice is also a lot “dirtier” than using third-floor ramps. Instead of the fresh air from outside, the catcher on the third floor now breathes a dirt-filled draft from the second floor. The worker receiving the chickens also receives the occasional slab of heavy manure.

Transportation companies have agreed to install a rail system above both sides of the tops of trailers. The driver, and any other worker joining him, will wear a harness strapped to both railings, preventing them from falling when rolling out a tarp or chaining the load.

According to Herman, Ontario’s 200-some chicken transportation trailers are currently being retrofitted. A major issue remaining is the compliance of trucks from Quebec.

All these security measures are voluntary, but not abiding by them could lead to serious fines. The Ministry of Labour is monitoring the Farm Standards Working Group’s progress and it will be among the first to hold a copy of the safe work practice document currently being drafted. Should a workplace injury occur, an inspector could report that the farmer, the catching crew or the transporter were not following the industry guidelines.

The PSA now has members representing the majority of Ontario’s chicken catching business. At this time, however, it is critical that all crews get on board, says Herman, one of the founders of the association, along with Dave Ottens and Terry Greidanus.

“If we are running by a set of rules and others are running by no rules at all, there’s no question we will run into a conflict,” Herman says.

The association focuses on neutral issues and its work is all positive, Herman says. “It is all meant to help our workers. Apart from our vehicles, they are all we have.”

Those not joining the PSA are not having their say in the development of regulations. Fall from heights safety measures are only one of the improvements they will have to implement the day they decide to catch up.

The PSA and CFO are looking at several other safety issues, like the absence of handrails on staircases, exposed fans, low hanging heaters and air quality.

Chicken loading is a “rough, dirty job,” Herman says. “There are things that can be done. It doesn’t have to be as bad as what it is sometimes,” he adds, referring to cases of excessive humidity or the presence daily mortality that has not been removed.

Once the new safety guidelines for broiler catching are fully rolled out, they will be extended to layers, breeders and turkeys.

John Neil says the CFO is “taking a big responsibility” in assisting its members to improve safety on their farms. “Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, you have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment for all people working on your property. Our members are aware of that.”

CFO is currently working on a health and safety course for farmers, to help them identify workplace hazards and prevent injuries.

When a catching crew is loading chickens, everyone – the farmer, the catching company, the transportation company – has a part of the liability should an accident occur. Even though the farmer is not the one hiring the crew, he still has a responsibility to prevent and report any unsafe work practices on his property.

The best way to prevent injuries – and to avoid fines should they occur – will be to abide by the set of guidelines the industry, farm safety associations and the Ministry of Labour will recognize as being appropriate best practices.

Barn building standards and safety
In the highly competitive business of barn building, providing a proper work environment for catching crews is not a top priority. Despite all the good intentions of farmers, new barns are often built with serious problems that can affect the work of a chicken catcher. 

“A new chicken farmer will invite us to an open house, we’ll have a look and we’re almost in tears looking at what he has built,” says Brian Herman of Brian’s Poultry Services.

There are often not enough loading doors. The anteroom may be in the wrong place. Sometimes, the feed bin has been installed next to a door, in such a way that prevents catchers from using the door.
Herman says catchers need a door every 50 feet. On a 400-foot barn, that’s eight doors. If not enough doors are put in, the spacing is all wrong, he says.

“Putting in fewer doors shouldn’t be a bargaining tool when trying to outbid the competitor,” Herman says.

The newly formed Poultry Service Association intends to speak with the Ontario members of the Canadian Farm Builders Association about setting up construction guidelines for new poultry barns. 

Having standards for poultry barn construction would allow contractors to remain competitive, without compromising on basic safety precautions and work conditions.

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