While those allowing customers into the orchard to pick their own fruit, talk a walk or picnic on the grounds have additional concerns to ensure the safety of those not accustomed to a farm environment, even seasoned farm workers – never mind new hires, young and reckless high school students earning an extra buck or family members living and playing on the premises – can readily be injured in routine tasks. Establishing a protocol for all operations and situations encountered in the course of farm work is a good start. Auditing every segment of your operation and examining the inherent safety risks, both large and small, and documenting the preventative steps to avoid compromises in on-farm occupational health and safety is something that should not be done only once, but repeatedly reviewed and adjusted as the farm evolves, and adhered to on a daily basis by everyone no matter how experienced.

Sources of Injury

The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (NEC) conducted at survey of patients seen at federally-funded migrant health centers in northeastern states. They found that orchard workers across all types of fruit operations were most likely to suffer harm from strains or sprains. Those injuries were primarily caused by carrying objects, reaching or grasping or picking fruit.

Orchard workers suffered primarily from back and shoulder musculoskeletal injuries, often related to heavy bags carried up and down the ladders, bending and lifting, and the emphasis on picking as quickly as possible, especially for workers being paid by the piece. Other common injuries include skin problems, most notably from contact with poison ivy. Skin irritation is also caused by pollen and dust, peach fuzz, insects, sun and water exposure, or from chemicals used in the orchard.

Even when proper pesticide application and re-entry is observed, residue can cause contact irritation on the skin. Workers thinning, harvesting or pruning trees and fruit are not legally required to wear the personal protective equipment that those mixing or applying chemicals must use. Gloves, hats and other protective equipment can provide a barrier and reduce workers’ indirect exposure to chemical sprays.

According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, over 500 orchard workers fall off ladders each year and file claims, with over 200 of them injured so seriously that they are not able to return to picking. Examine tripod ladders to ensure all nuts, bolts and fasteners are secured, and rungs are not damaged. Workers should perform this inspection several times per day.

Properly setting up the tripod orchard ladder before climbing on it is the next step to ladder safety. Legs must have contact on solid ground, and the third leg should be spread while standing under the ladder to prevent damage to the ladder or injury to others.

Since orchards are often planted on slopes, the ladder needs to be properly set for use on sloping ground. The third leg is placed uphill on slopes, and is extended correctly when, standing in front of the ladder with arms outstretched, the ladder is touched by the tips of the fingers. On a cross slope, the ladder’s third leg should be slightly downhill. Tripod ladders should never be placed against a tree, and tree branches should not extend between the rungs. Wearing proper footwear (boots with heels to keep balanced on the rungs) and clothing that won’t get caught while climbing are other safety measures which can prevent falls.

When climbing, workers are to keep both hands on the rails and keep their mid-torso within the sides of the ladder. For higher rungs, this area is not as wide as it is for lower rungs, so a worker’s reach will be less the higher up they climb. Extending the torso beyond the ladder sides significantly increases the chances of a fall or a sprain or strain. Feet should always face inward on the rung, even if the body is slightly turned when filling harvest bags. Falls from ladders can cause head injuries, broken bones and even fatalities.

OSHA offers a safety placard on tripod ladder use (at osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3705.pdf). Supplying ladders that are appropriately sized for the worker and for the trees, not permitting ladder work in windy conditions and training workers to keep ladders away from power lines, as well as clearly marking electrical hazards in the orchard, are other ways to protect worker safety.

Other Deadly Risks

Working outdoors always comes with environmental hazards such as wind, lightning and hail. Uneven ground can cause trips and falls with resulting injuries. Equipment and motorized vehicles are a concern no matter what type of farming you do.

Insect bites or bee stings can be issues in the orchard. In 2017, an orchard worker was fatally stung by a swarm of bees. Awareness of these risks, along with training to mitigate injury if encounters should occur, is recommended.

Equipment and infrastructure in the orchard can also cause injury or death. In 2018, an orchard worker was electrocuted while assisting with irrigation equipment repair. Early in 2019, a windmill situated in an orchard lost a blade and killed a farm worker.

According to AgInjury News, a database that collects information on agricultural injuries and fatalities, orchard or vineyard accidents in the U.S. since 2017 included six which involved all-terrain vehicles or utility vehicles. All resulted in fatalities. Many happened as agricultural workers were performing job-related duties using the ATVs, such as checking irrigation or spraying operations or as a part of agritourism operations.

Tractor rollovers in orchards took the lives of at least five orchard workers since 2017, with rollovers also causing serious but non-fatal injuries as well. Forklift accidents caused two fatalities in orchard settings.

As harvesting fruit becomes more mechanized, harvesting-related equipment fatalities have occurred. In 2018, a vineyard worker’s clothing was caught in a grape-harvesting machine, killing him.

Whether lulled into complacency because we’ve done the same job every day for years, because we live on the farm or because we simply don’t realize the dangers, spending a day in the orchard can prove risky. Growing a culture of safety in your orchard can save lives, prevent devastating injuries and reduce the number of minor incidents causing bodily harm.