Citrus harvest is drawing near, making it a good time to review harvest safety.

“If pickers know how to protect themselves and understand the importance of working safely, the risks of injury during this busy time will be greatly reduced,” says Melanie Zavala, safety training coordinator for the University of California Farm Safety Program.

One of the most common types of accidents in California agriculture is falling from a height, according to the UC Farm Safety Program. Citrus harvest, like other tree fruit harvests, involves constantly climbing and working on ladders.

It isn't hard to understand why climbing up and down a ladder all day while carrying heavy bags of fruit requires some caution. Harvest work is always hurried and it is easy for pickers to forget to work carefully. This is especially true when workers' wages are based on how many pounds of fruit they pick.

Perhaps the two greatest hazards involved in harvesting lemons, oranges and grapefruit are the danger of falling from the ladder and the possibility of back injury from carrying heavy bags full of fruit.

The citrus harvest in California coincides with the rainy season. This means that orchard floors are frequently muddy.

“When the orchard floor is wet, mud cakes on the bottom of workers' shoes, and the shoes become slippery,” explains Zavala. “Climbing ladders with muddy, slippery footwear greatly increases a worker's chance of falling.”

To further complicate matters, when the orchard floor is wet, the ladder can sink unevenly into the mud with the weight of the picker and become off balance. “Meanwhile, pickers are carrying heavy loads of the fruit they are picking. This affects their balance and, since they are using their hands to pick rather than hold on to the ladders, they are at even greater risk of falling,” Zavala continues.

There are many things that pickers can do to prevent a fall from a ladder.

Wear cleated shoes

The most important thing is choice of shoes. Smooth soled shoes become especially slippery when there is mud in the orchard. Citrus harvesters should always use shoes that have cleated soles. Under wet conditions, these cleats will fill up with mud, and workers will have to take the time to occasionally scrape the mud off the bottom of their shoes. Therefore, Zavala recommends that pickers carry a tool, such as a dull knife, to scrape off the mud.

Workers should check each time before climbing to make sure their ladders are resting evenly on the orchard floor. If one of the legs has sunk into the mud, the ladder should be adjusted so that it is balanced before the picker climbs back up. When climbing up the ladder, the rule is to never go beyond the third rung from the top. Going higher will make the ladder unstable and more likely to tip over.

“Picking should start from the top of the tree, with pickers moving downward on the ladder as their bags become fuller and heavier,” says Zavala.

Crew leaders should discourage their workers from reaching too far for fruit when they are on ladders. When all nearby fruit has been picked, harvesters should climb down and move the ladder rather then try to save time by reaching precariously and risking a fall. Workers should be reminded that they would lose far less time moving the ladder than they will if they fall off and suffer an injury.

Care should be taken in lifting. A full bag of citrus can weigh up to 80 pounds. Harvesters are constantly carrying these heavy loads while climbing and bringing bags to larger containers and dumping their load. Again, all of this is being done while hurrying to get as much fruit picked as possible. Workers should receive training at the beginning of the season regarding the best way to carry heavy loads.

“They should be encouraged to lift with their legs rather than with their backs,” Zavala says. “The weight in the bags should be distributed evenly; bags should not hang off to one side of the body and the weight should be carried as close as possible to the harvester's body. The containers into which workers empty their bags should be well below shoulder height.”