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Kit Galvin of the University of Washington explains how she is studying the health impacts of platform work. Rolf Luehs (on the platform), research assistant with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, demonstrates how workers wear monitors to measure their body movements and heart rate.

Kit Galvin of the University of Washington explains how she is studying the health impacts of platform work. Rolf Luehs (on the platform), research assistant with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, demonstrates how workers wear monitors to measure their body movements and heart rate.

University of Washington scientists are studying how working on platforms affects the health and well-being of orchard workers.

Kit Galvin, a research industrial hygienist with the university’s Pacific Northwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center, is heading a pilot project to look at the ergonomic impacts of workers using platforms, rather than ladders, while pruning and thinning.

The study is designed to ensure that technology adopted at the orchard won’t hurt workers. It will generate information that can be used in the design of future technology to minimize the negative impacts on workers so that they can continue to be productive, can go home healthy, and can retire healthy, Galvin said.

In her study, Galvin is looking at the impact of platform work on the upper body, using accelerometers to measure movement of the arms and chest. Workers wear the monitors for a normal day’s work, and data are downloaded to a computer so that researchers can assess repetitive motion and awkward or extreme postures, such as bending, twisting, or reaching above shoulder height. These types of motions can’t be ­eliminated, but the goal is to minimize them, she said.

She’s also using a heart-rate monitor and interviews with workers to assess overall exertion and discomfort during the course of a working day.

Galvin is collaborating with Washington State University and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in the two-year study, which is being conducted in commercial orchards located in eastern Washington.

Economic survey

Pruning is the task most often done from platforms, a recent survey by WSU agricultural economists shows. Other jobs commonly done from platforms include fruit or blossom thinning, tree training, trellis construction, and pheromone placement.

Drs. Karina Gallardo and Mykel Taylor sent out the survey last January to 765 tree fruit growers in Washington, and received responses from 313, of whom 35 were using platforms (11 percent of those responding). Thirty-two of those with platforms used them for pruning, but only two used them for harvest.

Preliminary results show that several different types of platform are used, with towed platforms being the most common, followed by self-propelled diesel-engine platforms.

One of the objectives of the survey is to find out why people do or do not use platforms. Almost a third of those who use platforms said that an increase in worker productivity was very important. Other reasons are to improve worker safety and improve the quality of the work. The vast majority of growers using platforms pay workers by the hour, rather than by piece rate, for work done from platforms.

On average, respondents had been using platforms for more than seven years, with one reporting to have used them for 50 years.

The two main reasons people gave for not using platforms were tree architecture that was not appropriate for platforms and the high cost of platforms, although some had improvised and made their own.