Ladders are a source of workplace accidents everywhere they’re used, but your orchard and grove clients need to pay special attention to ladder safety.
When you consider the way workers use ladders in these settings—the reaching, the constant climbing up and down with bulky loads, the moving from tree to tree—it’s easy to see why they cause more than their fair share of worker injuries. Understanding how growers use ladders and the types of injuries that can result gives you better insight into the ladder safety measures your clients should be taking to protect their employees.
Orchard and grove workers spend long hours standing on and climbing ladders during pruning and harvesting. With so much time spent on them, it’s no surprise that in Washington State—where tree fruit is one of its largest industries—more workers’ compensation claims come from orchard workers than any other type of agricultural worker. Even a relatively minor injury can lead to lost time, and employers can’t replace these workers as quickly and easily as in some industries.
Both falls from ladders and ladders falling on workers are common causes of injuries, from minor sprains to broken limbs and factures. In Washington alone, 43 orchard workers were hospitalized due to ladder falls from 2014-2018, and over half of them still couldn’t work a year or more after their injuries.
Falls aren’t the only injury hazard ladders pose. Both acute and cumulative musculoskeletal injuries can occur from climbing ladders, extending arms above the head to reach fruit, and carrying heavy harvest bags. Even carrying ladders from place to place proves hazardous.
While a large operation might use several types of ladders, the types most used for harvesting and pruning are orchard ladders and straight ladders. Orchard ladders are the most common for stone (e.g., cherries and peaches) and pome (apples and pears) fruit operations. Single ladders that lean against the tree for support are more commonly used by citrus growers.
Orchard ladders are designed for uneven, soft, outdoor terrain, so they’re perfect for use in orchards when used properly. The feet of the ladder dig into the ground slightly and have a tripod leg instead of a locking brace or spreader. When set up properly, they work well on slopes because you can adjust the tripod leg according to the slope and to get it to the height you need. They should never be used on flat, hard surfaces.
Some operations have found mobile work platforms to be a safer alternative to ladders. With platforms, workers can stand on a sturdy surface with railings or other fall protection devices and significantly reduce their chances of falling.
Orchard ladders are a useful tool for the agricultural and horticultural work for which they’re designed, but they also lead to numerous worker injuries every year—most of which are preventable. Some common causes of injuries are slips on rungs, collapsing ladders, and being struck by tree branches.
The more traumatic injuries usually come from falls from the upper part of the ladder. Here are some examples of how proper training might have prevented an accident:
Improper ladder placement: A worker was using an orchard ladder to prune trees on sloped ground but hadn’t set up the ladder properly. The worker climbed to the fifth or sixth rung of an 8-foot ladder, lost his balance and fell. He landed on his wrist and fractured it, requiring multiple surgeries to repair.
Overreaching: A worker was reaching to cut a branch and fell, landing on his chest and hitting his head on frozen ground. He lost consciousness and suffered multiple traumatic injuries resulting in surgery and several days in intensive care.
Injuries from orchard ladders have become so widespread that OSHA published a fact sheet and QuickCard explaining the hazards and precautions employers need to take to prevent injuries. In addition to general ladder safety precautions and employee training tips on carrying, inspecting, and maintaining orchard ladders, OSHA offers ladder safety measures specific to falls:
Ladder injuries can be life-changing for employees and are a constant source of work and worry for employers. Orchard and grove operations have an added burden because of the work their employees do on ladders. Help your clients manage the many actions they need to take to stay in compliance and reduce ladder accidents with Foresight and Safesite’s wide range of ladder safety tools and resources. Preventing ladder injuries is one more step your client can take to ensure their workers get home safe and sound at the end of a busy, productive day.