— by Helen Murphy

Ladders are the number-one cause of orchard injuries, accounting for about a third of all Washington State Department of Labor and Industries workers’ compensation claims from the state’s main tree-fruit regions. Sprain and strains are the most common injuries resulting from ladder accidents, but fractures and dislocations are more costly.

Causes of ladder accidents include unstable ladder placement, overextension of the third leg of the ladder, slipping while descending, and being struck by a falling ladder.

To get a better idea of the circumstances of ladder accidents, the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center collected detailed stories from 35 workers who had filed ladder injury claims. Ladder movement was a contributing cause in 65 percent of the accidents and the main cause in 47 percent. More falls occurred on the upper third of the ladder than lower down. Slipping accounted for a quarter of the cases. Here is an example of an account:

The worker was picking apples on the seventh step of a ten-foot ladder with a full bag of apples. The worker was beginning to descend the ladder and turned to the right so that his back or side was to the rungs. The left foot slipped from the ladder, and the worker grabbed the ladder with one hand and was left hanging. The worker attributed the injuries and severity to the weight of the bag and the slippery conditions and frosty weather.

Because the stories came from a small group of workers who had filed a claim and were willing to be interviewed, PNASH also questioned a more representative group of 180 workers. About 60 percent reported that they had been injured while working in the orchard, and most of those cases involved ladders. Major factors contributing to injuries were ladders in poor condition, the shifting weight of the fruit, bags and equipment in the way, poor weather, uneven terrain, and production pressures.

Engineering solutions

The tree fruit industry is adopting mobile platforms in an effort to replace ladders and their risks. Extension educators report increased productivity, fewer physical demands on workers, and no accidents or claims filed to date related to platform work.

While growers convert their orchards to use platforms, many will still need to use ladders. The PNASH Center has developed two affordable add-on features for existing ladders to increase safety:

Safe Last Step. A sensor is placed on the last step to alert the worker that he or she is about to step onto the ground, thus preventing the worker from mistakenly trying to get off the ladder too early and falling to the ground.

Third Leg Spike. This spike keeps the third leg (tongue) of the ladder in place. The spike bites into hard and icy ground and can be moved out of the way when not needed.

PNASH is seeking partners in the industry to bring these features to the marketplace.

Another innovation is a reengineered bag from the Northeast Center for Agricultural Health in New York. Based on extensive research on back and shoulder strain, the center developed a hip belt (patent pending) that attaches to conventional bags. It not only takes the weight off the worker’s upper torso but stabilizes the load by keeping it closer to the body. The fruit bag, fitted with a metal hook, can be freely attached and removed from the hip belt. When attached to the belt, the bag can be moved side to side along a sliding mechanism.

Laboratory and orchard evaluations indicated a significant decrease in lower-back muscle stress, a high level of acceptance, and no reduction in worker productivity. The belt is currently undergoing durability testing. It is expected to be introduced commercially within
two years.

Risk-taking behaviors

A larger, more difficult issue to grapple with is the risk-taking behavior on the part of younger workers anxious to make ends meet. In spite of training, hazardous practices such as using the top two steps, overreaching, or more ambitious ladder acrobatics like moving a ladder without getting off (known as “walking the ladder”) still go on.

To tackle this attitudinal aspect of safety, the PNASH Center is taking a new approach to training through the use of traditional storytelling. We all tend to remember things better when it involves a story about someone we know. Furthermore, our Latino workforce comes from cultures that communicate information, morality, and lessons through stories. These range from fables to the more modern novelas (soap operas). Our question is, can we stimulate an attitudinal sea change in risk-taking behaviors if workers hear the details about tragic injuries from their coworkers?

Workers’ ladder-injury stories were gathered through a contest run by the Spanish-language public radio station Radio KDNA in Granger, Washington. Four winners told their stories on the air and listened to other workers who called in with their own tales. Not only did they have many exhortations for their peers but also messages for managers and owners.

For workers: Slow down and pay attention. If you don’t, the economic loss from an accident is far more costly than foregoing wages from extra fruit. Set your ladder with care. Pay attention to holes in the ground. Check your ladder and report defects. Do not be ashamed to ask for help if you are new to ladders.

For managers: It is reaching for that last, hard-to-reach fruit that makes workers take risks. Tell them to leave it rather than lose their balance and livelihood. Don’t send your workers out with defective ladders. Test their ability to use ladders.

For owners: Pay attention to what your managers are doing. Are they pressuring workers to take chances in getting that last fruit just to please you? Are they doing the proper training? Are they inspecting their ladders before sending them out with workers?

Ladder safety is everyone’s business.

Ladder stories

Gregario: “It was at the end of the day, reaching for that last piece of fruit. Down I went, breaking my back. Now, I can no longer work. I lost my house, my savings, my dreams. My life ­irreversibly changed that day.”

Ismelda: “I knew that ladder was not safe. One step was wobbly. I asked my supervisor for another but was too impatient to wait for it. On the eleventh rung, overstretching to get that last piece of fruit, the ladder moved. ­Suddenly, I was on the ground with a broken leg. Out of work, two surgeries later with 14 screws and a metal plate, I am still in pain.”

This story was updated to fix a formatting error in our archive.