It’s time for some New Year reflection, evaluation and – of course – resolution, all of which can be put to use to make the next season more productive, profitable and rewarding. In the orchard, even the dormant period can be busy, replete with tasks such as clean-up and pruning, and preparing for the new growing season. Before you sharpen, oil and grab those loppers, clean and store the harvest bags, or perform a safety check of those ladders, evaluate your orchard practices through the lens of ergonomics.

“In agriculture especially, ergonomics often looks to improve three areas: high forces; awkward postures; and highly repetitive movements,” Victor Duraj, Associate Development Engineer/Ph.D. Student Outreach and Safety, at the Center for Biological and Agricultural Engineering, University of California, Davis, said.

In orchard work, all three focus areas occur. High forces result from moving heavy loads or using tools that require applying pressure. Awkward positions are involved in both pruning and harvesting tasks. Those same tasks also require repetitive movements.

The data

“A study reviewing injuries and fatalities in California agriculture during the 1981-1990 period found that in fruits and tree nuts, there were 86 fatalities and 36,540 injuries,” Duraj said. “Forty-two percent of the injuries were strains and sprains, and, of those, 41 percent were back injuries.”

Other sources of injury – 58 percent – were due to fractures, contusions and lacerations. Whether falling from a ladder, cutting oneself during hand pruning, or throwing out your back from a heavy harvest load, orchard work can be hazardous. Even if you are a small operation, with just a handful of employees, paying attention to orchard ergonomics can make it less so.

Falls were found to be the third most prevalent cause of fatalities in orchards in the California report. Falls, along with overexertion, were two common causes of non-fatal injuries. Strains and sprains were found to result in the most costly injuries when looked at cumulatively, due to direct and indirect costs, based on workers compensation data.

Ladders

Ladders, although not the only cause of falls or strains, are common culprits in both circumstances. Proper ladder maintenance as well as safe use of the ladder and proper body positioning, combine to make orchard tasks less hazardous than they often are. Ladders must have tight rivet joints and hinges, and should have legible and complete safety labels to serve as reminders of proper ladder usage.

“The higher you stand on an orchard ladder, the more force is transferred to the pole leg, increasing the chances for an irrecoverable movement,” Duraj said. “Be sure your ladder’s top hinge isn’t sloppy, keep both feet on the rung, and use one hand to assist with balance, and don’t lean out so far where you can lose your balance.”

The type of ladder, as well as the size, also matters. The height of the ladder must be tall enough to reach the tree tops with proper positioning. Tripod ladders are meant to be used on soft, unstable terrain such as that found in orchards.

“The one step that farmers can take to improve health and safety in orchards is to ensure the ladders being provided are appropriate for the particular work,” Duraj said. “With pruning tasks, a challenge occurs with the need to use two outstretched arms to operate the tool, leaving workers without any hands on the ladder to help with balance. The concern is greater when shorter ladders are used around taller trees.”

UC-Davis studies have also found that ladder rung spacing preference can vary among workers, and that opting for shorter or longer spacing can impact worker endurance and fatigue.

Tools that fit

Not only do you need to fit the ladder to the orchard, and optimally to the worker: getting the fit right also applies to hand-held tools, such as pruning shears and loppers, used in the orchard. These tools can require the application of static pressure, a pinch grip, and repetitive movements.

Complicating the matter, some fruit – like citrus – is often harvested with clippers. Workers are balancing on ladders, using repetitive motions, carrying a load, and working quickly with a sharp object. If they aren’t doing so properly, there are many chances for injury.

Tools that offer friction to enhance grip, that fit the worker’s hand, and that are easier to manipulate can reduce injury and fatigue. And by changing the size, shape or weight load of the harvest bag, this piece of equipment can better fit the worker, and lessen the risk of injury.

“A fruit’s potential for bruising or damage during harvest can lead to bulky, rigid collection trays or very large sacks, that can make maneuvering up, down, and on a ladder more risky,” Duraj said.

The New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH) is conducting studies on a new model of dual picking bags, consisting of a steel frame with padding, and which are supported by both shoulder and hip belts, allowing better balance during harvest. The bags each hold 40 pounds.

A basic understanding of how the body can – and can’t – be expected to move, can have a big impact on orchard worker health. Applying the principles of ergonomics to orchard work means that tasks can be accomplished with safety in mind. Because the body isn’t constantly battling pain and fatigue, ergonomic principles help to lighten the load, keeping the job more manageable, and thus enhancing employee overall performance.

“Although proper training is also required, having the right equipment in good working order helps reinforce a safety culture from the top,” Duraj said. “A tool that is sized to the job and kept in good condition can ensure the best fit between job and worker, which is what ergonomics is all about.”