by Tamara Scully

It’s fall harvest time and your hands are literally full. Growers and orchard workers are climbing those ladders, wearing those buckets and carefully harvesting those apples. Other tree fruits and nuts, as well as grapes and berries, share many of the same harvesting concerns that apples do.

Falls from orchard ladders are always a possibility, whether pruning or harvesting. The key to fall prevention starts with the ladder. Tripod ladders are designed for the softer, uneven grounds typically found in the orchard. Falls in orchards, whether from a ladder or otherwise, are prevalent causes of injury and fatality, according to data from the University of California.

“Harvest time and weather can lead to slippery ground and ladder rung surfaces,” Victor Duraj, biological and agricultural engineer, Agricultural Ergonomics Research Center, UC Davis College of Engineering, said. “Slips and falls in orchards may not be the most common cause of injury, but workers’ compensation data suggests that slips and falls result in injuries that cumulatively cost more to the farmer in direct and indirect costs.”

Preventing injuries isn’t, of course, solely about money. Protecting life and limb (human and tree!) is first and foremost. Duraj advises that orchard ladders be scaled to the size of the trees, be maintained in good working order and have visible labels on them to remind workers of safety procedures.

“Although actual training is also imperative, having the right equipment in good working order helps reinforce a safety culture from the top,” he emphasized.

When ladders are too short, and workers have to perch on the uppermost rungs and reach up to prune or pick, it’s much easier to fall than when workers can stand on lower rungs and aren’t reaching above their heads. More frequently moving the ladder, or placing it so that workers don’t have to lean out to harvest fruit, also plays a significant role in injury prevention during harvest.

One hand should be kept on the ladder to assist with balancing, both feet should be firmly planted on the rung and workers shouldn’t climb all the way to the top few steps of the ladder. When top rungs are used, greater force is applied to the pole leg of a tripod ladder, and the risk of instability increases, Duraj explained.

Studies at UC Davis have also shown that ladder rung spacing preference can vary among workers. When ladder rungs are spaced to fit the picker, with shorter or longer spacing available, worker endurance improves and fatigue decreases.

Twisting and turning during harvesting can also lead to falls and can cause back injuries and strains. Picking the fruit requires repetitive motions, which can also lead to injury. When harvesting fruit, back injury can also be caused by harvest bags, which tend to place uneven weight distribution on the body.

“Bulky, rigid collection trays or very large sacks that can make maneuvering up, down and on a ladder more risky” are often used in an effort to protect fragile fruit from damage, Duraj said. But these containers can be awkward and difficult for workers to handle without injury.

The New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH) has conducted studies on a prototype model of a dual picking bag, supported by both shoulder and hip belts, allowing better balance during harvest. The bags each hold 40 pounds of fruit. Made of lightweight nylon with steel framing, the bags transfer the weight of the harvest from workers’ backs to their hips, reducing strain and injury.

The harvest bags tested by NYCAMH are also padded, both on the shoulder and hip straps to offer worker comfort, and around the bag to protect the fruit. Rope tensioners allow easy release to gently empty the harvested fruit, potentially preventing undue muscle strains from improper twisting, turning or lifting when emptying picking buckets.

According to their research, these dual bags not only more effectively distribute the weight of the harvest to keep workers better balanced and reducing the chance of worker fatigue, they also allow for sorting of the fruit at the time of picking. While these harvest bags are not currently being commercially produced, the design can be replicated by growers seeking to protect workers from injury while increasing harvesting efficacy.

Some of the risk factors for musculoskeletal injury during harvest activities include forward bending, heavy lifting and carrying, kneeling and static positioning. According to research studies related to musculoskeletal disorders of farmers and farm workers, of which there are few, back pain, shoulder pain and pain in the arms and hands are the most common musculoskeletal symptoms reported. The National Health Institute Survey (NHIS) has found an increased risk of arthritis among farmers when compared to other occupations.

Farm worker injuries due to ergonomic strain on the body can be acute (occurring suddenly) or cumulative, the result of repeatedly using the body in a manner that causes stress. Body positioning, motion and force work in combination with an individual’s age, strength and dexterity. Overloading the body’s ability can cause damage, resulting in pain and injuries which are compounded over time.

If workers are able to alternate jobs so their bodies do not undergo the same repetitive motions all day, day after day – as is common during harvesting work – injuries can be reduced. Periods of standing, alternating with periods of walking or sitting, involve different muscles and positions and allow the tissues to rest. Rather than having a production line approach where workers perform the same motion continually, alternating worker tasks can alleviate ergonomic stress and prevent injury.

During orchard harvesting, workers are exposed to many potential safety hazards. Climbing ladders, extending arms above the head to reach fruit, repeating motions involved in picking the fruit, supporting the weight of the harvest with the body and lifting or emptying harvest containers are all potential causes of ergonomic injuries. Recognizing the risk factors, eliminating them as much as possible and educating workers as to the proper ways to lift, bend and perform the tasks at hand are the first line defenses needed for injury prevention.