A worker uses a Girette to prune trees.

A worker uses a Girette to prune trees.

Courtesy Flathead Cherry Growers, Montana

Regulators in British Columbia, Canada, have developed safety documentation for the elevated, mobile work platforms widely used in the province’s orchards—but have sidelined locally designed equipment that reflected local farming conditions.

WorkSafeBC, the organization that regulates workplace safety and workers’ compensation in the province, took issue with the platforms in 2009. Girette lifts, three-wheeled systems with extensible buckets, and similar older equipment were deemed to be not compliant with existing workplace safety regulations. There were no engineering standards or operator’s manuals for the systems, nor operator’s training programs.

“When they were built and designed, it didn’t happen, or if it did, there’s no record,” Bruce Johnson, executive director of the Canadian Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association said. FARSHA worked with the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association to bring the platforms into compliance with WorkSafeBC regulations.

The industry commissioned PAMI (Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute) in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, to develop an engineering standard and operator’s manual for the machines with funding from the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association. FARSHA developed a training program for the equipment. The new documentation and training program has yet to receive final approval from WorkSafeBC. The materials were originally set to be ready by January 1, 2011.

While there have been few claims associated with use of the machines since their introduction in the 1970s, WorkSafeBC was concerned about the stability of the equipment on hillsides. The potential for injuries if gates on the buckets were unsecured and opened outwards was also a concern.

However, some believe the advantages to the platforms outweigh the concerns. They reduce the risk of worker injuries because the need to climb up and down ladders is less, and worker fatigue is also reduced because machines elevate the worker to the level of the work area.

“If it keeps people off ladders, it reduces injuries,” Johnson said.

Modified rice harvesters

But just as PAMI began its work, Roger Bailey of Kalwood Farms in Oyama, British Columbia, made headlines for his adaptation of secondhand rice harvesters he imported from Japan. Unlike the Girette and similar equipment, Bailey’s machines featured platforms welded to a chassis outfitted with Caterpillar tracks. Bailey customized more than 20 of the machines to suit the needs of his own farm and those of other orchardists up and down the Okanagan Valley, for which he received the 2010 Award of Excellence for Innovation from the Investment Agriculture Foundation of British Columbia.

“Without the need for ladders, Bailey’s mobile work platform helps reduce worker fatigue and injury rates,” IAF chair Stuart Wilson said in the statement announcing the award. “IAF is pleased to recognize Bailey’s innovative spirit and industriousness in creating safer and more ­efficient ways to farm.”

But the attention associated with the award brought Bailey’s system to the notice of WorkSafeBC, and a review was ordered of them, too. Since the machines were ­significantly different from the wheeled machines, and each one was custom-built, including them in PAMI’s ­documentation was ultimately deemed impossible.

“We said, ‘Well, maybe we can tackle them all at the same time.’ But, unfortunately, we couldn’t do that,” Johnson explained. “It became pretty evident that once the engineering standard was developed it wouldn’t work for the track machines. They’re just two absolutely ­different kinds of machines.”

WorkSafeBC visited Bailey’s farm last winter when workers were pruning cherries and told him his workers couldn’t use the machines. Bailey could use the machines he developed since owner-operators aren’t subject to workplace safety regulations, but employees could not.

“They did a compliance visit in February and told me I was not to put staff on it anymore,” he said.

Bailey estimates the machines saved him $500 to $1,000 an acre in labor costs. He used three in his own 100-acre orchard–one for pruning and thinning, another for harvesting apples, and a third designed for spreading compost.

One of the advantages of the platforms was that it allowed workers to move at a set speed through the orchard on a piece of in-place but mobile scaffolding. Workers could pick the topmost fruit from his super-­spindle apple trees, for example, before the rest of the harvest crew moved through. The track system gave the equipment greater stability, unlike systems with ­extensible buckets.

“The three-wheeled machines aren’t suitable because you have to swing to the centre, drive ahead, and swing back over,” he said.

The customized nature of the machines was also an advantage, and he understands some growers have modified the systems he built for them to reflect conditions in their own orchards.

“The reason everybody does that is the same reason we came up with in the first place…because we all have different row spacing,” he said.

Disappointed

Bailey isn’t about to argue with WorkSafeBC, but he is disappointed with the message it sends to an industry with a long tradition of adaptation and innovation.

“We’ve always innovated and done it and the reason we do that is to be cost-effective, because in our industry, when things become more expensive, we don’t get to just pass that on,” he said.

WorkSafeBC’s move sends a message that even ­innovation is costly.

Bailey estimates that a Hydralada lift from Australia or a Girette would cost upwards of $25,000 for B.C. growers, while each machine he made cost about $7,000. The cost was easily amortized, thanks to the labor savings. To develop an engineering standard for each unit and the documentation WorkSafeBC requires would have cost in the range of $35,000 per machine, Bailey said.

“Essentially, they’ve just priced us out,” he said. “It made it so I can’t amortize it.”

Bailey isn’t aware of other growers being shut down, and feels he’s been made an example that sends a message to other growers not to use the machines. He said he’s been told to not provide advice to other growers seeking to develop platforms, lest he be considered a supplier of prohibited equipment. “Farmers are no longer allowed to do what they’ve always done in history,” he said. “And I’m not interested in being a machine developer and setting up a service shop. That’s beyond the scale of what I’m interested in getting involved in. If someone wants to do it, there’s lots of the machines; they can order containers [of them] and go at it!”

WorkSafeBC was unable to respond to requests from the Good Fruit Grower for information regarding mobile work platforms in orchards, or its timeline for approving documentation and training materials.