Getting rid of ladders should not only make the orchard a safer place, but might open up orchard jobs to a larger pool of people.

Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension educator in the Columbia Basin, is working on a project to develop a multirow platform system that would transport workers down orchard rows.

Lewis said the industry, collectively and as individuals, recognizes the inherent risks of orchard work, and removing ladders provides an opportunity to reduce the risks.

“By getting rid of the ladders, we anticipate we will reduce injury,” she said. “We will reduce fatigue, and less fatigue means people are better able to make good judgments.

“Getting rid of the ladder and providing more stable employment allows us to open up this work to more people, so the workforce we can draw from is larger. If we can hire both male and female, young and old, we’re in a better position than we are today when our requirement is to carry a 20-pound ladder.”

Platforms will change the ergonomic impacts on workers. While moving up and down a ladder appears to be ergonomically challenging, the impacts of repetitive motion are probably greater when workers are on platforms, Lewis said. Going up and down a ladder gives workers a chance to use a different set of muscles than they use for picking or pruning.

“Using different muscle groups throughout an eight-hour day is better than using just one,” Lewis said. “On the platforms, it’s not just one, but it’s different and fewer.”

Lewis said the industry is working to identify the impacts of switching to platforms and to find ways to mitigate them before adopting the technology.

While providing water and keeping workers hydrated will be easier when they are on platforms, it will be a challenge to provide a way for a worker to get off a moving platform to use a restroom without having the whole crew stop work. A person getting off the platform might have to be replaced with a floating worker, but there would need to be a way for that person to access the specific platform where they’re needed.

“We have multiple challenges in this project,” Lewis said. “The economics are easy to prove. I think the engineering is easy to solve. I think that the labor component, and managing the efficiencies are a major challenge because we’re talking about individuals, we’re talking about people.”