Climbing Up the Orchard

Having the right ladder for the job provides a safe work environment for employees and improves efficiency. Oversized, heavy ladders take more time and effort to move, thus cutting down on productive working time. On the other hand, a ladder that is too small forces workers to reach farther to pick the fruit or make a pruning cut, greatly increasing the risk of strains or falls. Buying and maintaining the proper ladder for your orchard protects your employees and is much less expensive and less time consuming than workers’ compensation claims.

Since many growers use a trellis system or top their orchards to maintain a certain height, the self-supporting tripod ladder is the most commonly used ladder in all stone and pome fruit operations. Single ladders that lean against the tree for support are more commonly used by citrus growers.

Discover how to size a ladder for your orchard, properly maintain a ladder and establish a culture of safety when using ladders to keep employees safe and free from injuries.

Climbing Up the Orchard

Sizing a ladder

In any orchard, the tree height determines the ladder size needed. “The highest safe standing level for our orchard ladders is three feet,” Greg Panella, president of Stokes Ladders, in Kelseyville, California, said.

If, for example, the trees in the orchard are 12 feet tall, the highest safe standing level of the Stokes 11-foot ladder is 7 feet, 7 inches. “If you add the worker’s height to that, say, on average 5 feet, 6 inches, your worker’s head will be at 13 feet, 1 inch, which should give them enough reach to get to every part of the tree,” he added.

Smaller ladders are lighter and cheaper, often tempting growers to purchase ladders that aren’t adequate for the job. “Don’t put your employees at risk by under-sizing your ladders,” he said. “You need to be able to safely pick and prune your trees while maintaining three points of contact with the ladder.”

Three points of contact reference workers having two hands and one foot; or two feet and one hand in contact with the ladder steps, rungs and/or side rails at all times. It increases workers’ stability while lowering the change of a fall.

When shopping for ladders, keep in mind the types of rootstocks in the orchard and the horticultural practices you plan on using. “More and more growers are moving to dwarfing rootstocks and keeping their trees pruned short for many reasons, ladder safety being one of them,” he said.

Proper ladder use

When used properly, ladders are a safe tool. To correctly set up the ladder, erect the ladder so that the step treads are level, or horizontal, from left to right and from front to back, with the third leg in a stable position straight away from the centerline of the ladder.

Once the ladder is properly set up, step onto the first step and “set” or penetrate the side rails and tube slightly into the soil. “When climbing the ladder, always face the ladder and keep three points of contact,” Panella said. “Keep your belt buckle between the side rails. If you need to reach farther, climb down the ladder and move it to the proper location.”

When it’s time to move the ladder, lean it on its side so that it is horizontal. Face the top of the ladder forward, firmly securing the tripod pole to keep it from slipping out of the ladder notch. Teach employees to place their arm through the ladder and balance it on their shoulder.

Climbing Up the Orchard

“We have a shoulder pad inside the side rail at the balance point of the ladder,” Panella said. “Place the shoulder pad on your shoulder and wrap your arm around the third leg to keep positive control of the ladder and the third leg.”

The U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA created the Agricultural Safety Fact Sheet that specifically addresses the safe use of tripod orchard ladders. The fact sheet also encourages employers to remind workers of several basic tips:

  • Never leave a ladder standing open at the end of the workday.
  • Limit or reschedule work on ladders during high winds, heavy rain or thunderstorms.
  • Avoid walking under or near ladders in use by using a barrier or having a coworker act as a lookout.
  • Never use ladders on hard surfaces.
  • Use and carry tools on a ladder in a safe manner.

The full fact sheet can be found at

The shoulder pad also provides a visible reference for the balance point of the ladder. “You should grab the ladder near the balance point when erecting the ladder or bringing it back down so the ladder doesn’t get away from you and fall over,” he added.

It’s important for the person carrying the ladder to watch for other people and nearby trees to avoid running into either. Proper ladder lifting and handling techniques can protect workers from back injuries.

When not in use, the ladders should ideally be stored horizontally on a ladder trailer. If you store them in the upright position, the ladders should be tethered so as not to blow over in a wind storm. Also, if storing them in the vertical position, make sure they are not accessible to children who might climb them.

Ladder safety

Every year many workers are injured from using tripod orchard ladders. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that sprains and strains are the most common types of ladder injuries. These injuries are caused by overreaching, moving, lifting or carrying ladders. Fractures, concussions and dislocations are also possible when workers fall as a result of an unstable ladder, overextension of the ladder’s tripod pole, slipping or being struck by a falling ladder (

These incidents are preventable. Provide workers with regular training and remind them to follow safety procedures when using and handling ladders. To prevent these injuries, Panella offered tips for inspection and setup that will keep workers safe.

A worker should thoroughly examine the ladder every morning before using the ladder, and periodically throughout the workday. “They should make sure that the joints are tight, (and) there are no missing or broken rivets or hardware,” he said.

It’s also important to check the steps throughout the day for damage to the steps themselves, the side rails, tubing or braces. If there is any damage, workers should notify their supervisor and get a different ladder. Mud, snow, ice or other foreign materials make steps slippery. If it’s not possible to remove these from the steps, the worker should also request a different ladder.

“If the ladder is properly inspected for damage, and the ladder is properly set up and used as above, it is a very safe and stable work platform,” he said.

It’s especially important to re-inspect a ladder if it tips over. Before placing the ladder back in service, inspect it from top to bottom, checking all the joints, rivets and hardware.

Remind workers that ladders made of aluminum are good conductors of electricity. “Make sure the ladders are not used around low hanging power lines,” Panella said.

Advancements in the design of ladders have also made them safer for workers. “We have made several advancements in safety and longevity to our ladders. We added a bright red step three steps from the top of the ladder,” Panella said. “This easily catches your eye to remind you not to step on or above the red step.”

Tripod orchard ladders can be dangerous. Many workers have been hurt from slips on rungs, falls, collapsing ladders and being struck by tree branches. Proper training the help workers to recognize hazards, a process for workers to report unsafe conditions to supervisors immediately and a commitment to safety significantly limit injury.