Prepare for a Safe 2017 Wine Grape Harvest

Lodi seminar provides tips for harvesting safely at night

by Ted Rieger
wine lodi harvest prep seminar
Mechanical harvesters pick grapes at dawn in the Lodi AVA.

Lodi, Calif.—California’s 2017 wine grape harvest will soon be underway in many locations, and one of the most important considerations for harvest preparation is worker safety. As more vineyards conduct harvest at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures, nighttime working conditions create additional safety concerns related to poorer visibility and potential worker fatigue due to sleep deprivation.

The Lodi District Grape Growers Association and the Lodi Winegrape Commission held a grape harvest safety seminar July 25th for vineyard workers and supervisors in both English and Spanish to help prepare work crews, vineyards and equipment for a safe harvest. Coincidentally, harvest in Lodi had started the day before, with Michael David Winery picking Chardonnay for sparkling wine production at its Bare Ranch vineyard.

Night harvest safety
Daniel Castillo, safety consultant with Pan American Insurance Agency based in Stockton, Calif., focused on night harvest safety. He noted that California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, had not yet finalized proposed new regulations for night work in agriculture. Current regulations require that tractors and self-propelled equipment be equipped with a headlight to illuminate at least 50 feet in front, plus have a light to illuminate the rear of the vehicle, and have lighting as needed to allow the adjustment of equipment. This applies between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.

Proposed new Cal/OSHA regulations would apply between sunset and sunrise, and also require lighting be provided in areas where workers may be on the ground within 25 feet of operating tractors, trucks and self-propelled or towed equipment. In addition, the employer would be required to provide and require workers to wear Class 2 high-visibility garments.

Castillo advised: “Cal/OSHA compliance is the minimum you want to accomplish. Be creative and innovative, improve your lighting equipment and visibility. Good lighting not only improves safety, it improves the quality of worker production, and people tend to stay more alert with good illumination. If the lamps you’re using aren’t bright enough, use better lamps.” Castillo said newer LED light fixtures are available for ag equipment and have benefits that include: better light quality and less strain on batteries and alternators. They also last up to 50 times longer than halogen lights.

Personal protective gear suggested for workers includes: Class 2 high-visibility garments such as reflective vests, good-quality headlamps to properly illuminate the ground when walking in fields and to light vines for harvesting by hand, and general protective clothing such as proper footwear, pants and long sleeves, gloves, eye protection and hardhats, if needed. For dusty field conditions, workers may voluntarily wear a respirator, but the employer must ensure the respirator does not present a health or safety hazard to the worker.

Castillo suggested harvest crews maintain supplies of extra reflective vests available at each shift and have extra batteries and extra bulbs available for worker headlamps, and extra bulbs for equipment and vineyard lighting devices.

Vineyards should be scouted during daylight prior to harvest for potential hazards that may be less visible at night. Holes, trenches, ditches and water-holding ponds should be physically blocked off or clearly marked. Power poles, guy wires and pump station wires can be marked with reflective tape or materials. “Consider all possible hazards. Some of your employees—or your labor contractor workers—may have never been to the field. Go out during the day in advance and start marking hazards,” Castillo advised. Staging areas for workers should be specifically delineated and separated from vehicle and equipment traffic and marked with traffic cones or other visible markers or barriers. Restrooms should be well-lit, and foot traffic routes from the field to the restrooms and staging areas should be lit and free of obstructions.

“At night and early morning, condensation can make things slippery, so have employees be aware of slip hazards,” Castillo advised. Wet and sticky conditions on or near mechanical harvesters and around collection bins from harvested grapes and leaves can also present unsafe footing conditions.

Tractor and mechanical harvester operators need to know where all employees on the crew are at all times. Harvesters should be well-lit for employees on the tractor and those in the field. The ends of rows and vineyard edges near public roadways can be particularly hazardous locations that may need more lighting. Extra caution is needed when transporting vineyard equipment and trucks on public roads—day or night. Equipment and vehicles should be properly signed on the rear with a reflective triangle that designates slow-moving vehicles. Properly signed pilot vehicles may be needed to move slow or wide equipment on roadways. Traffic can be present on public roadways after midnight and in early morning hours—even in rural areas. Drivers at these times could be impaired or fatigued, and unlit roadways have less visibility.

Night work presents hazards of potential encounters with nocturnal animals: snakes, skunks, raccoons, bats, coyotes and other animals. Workers should be warned about animals known to frequent the area and to back away from any animal encountered. Mosquitoes could be a problem in locations near canals and waterways, and West Nile Virus is a potential threat to consider.

Night harvest safety should be specifically addressed in the employer’s Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) document required by Cal/OSHA. “Have a written plan for emergencies, where to take an injured employee for medical care or a location with public access to meet emergency medical personnel and vehicles,” Castillo said. This should be planned in advance for each harvest worksite. Remote work areas should be checked in advance for available cell phone service to call 911 and find the nearest location for phone access.

Castillo emphasized the need for employees to get adequate sleep, because tired workers are more prone to making mistakes and being injured. Employers should talk with workers about getting enough sleep during the day and the proper conditions for sleeping (a quiet, dark area without disturbances).

He said, “Be understanding with employees particularly the first few days of night harvest, which can be the hardest, and give them time to acclimate to night hours.” Let them take a 15-minute nap in a safe location if they need it. Fatigue can be more likely toward the end of the shift. “Tell your employees to have a clear plan for getting sleep when they get home,” he advised.

Worker assessment
Oscar Fierros of Cal Ag Safety based in Escalon, Calif., a provider of safety training and consultation services for more than 200 agricultural employers in the San Joaquin Valley, presented general suggestions for grape harvest safety. Fierros recommended properly assessing workers before they begin work, and then daily as they perform work, to prevent problems. This includes assessing their level of experience, making sure they have the proper training and are authorized to perform the assigned tasks, and checking their level of alertness each day. “Pay attention to employee comments that may indicate signs of fatigue or health problems,” Fierros said.

Back safety is an issue for harvesting by hand. Workers should be instructed in proper lifting techniques and not to overfill picking boxes. The use of back-support belts for lift-injury prevention is encouraged. Hand harvest tools should be sharp, in good condition and properly operating.

Equipment safety and maintenance
Workers should be instructed and assessed regularly to prevent entanglement around moving equipment parts. They should not wear loose clothing or jewelry, and hair should be secure. Cover guards should be properly installed on equipment.

Pre-season and daily equipment inspection is advised. Fierros suggested: “Check welding beads on equipment for cracks. Check hitching and towing equipment and connections, and use the appropriate equipment for the load capacities.” Workers should be trained for working with and near grape gondolas that can be tipping hazards. Gondolas should be unloaded on level ground.

Vineyard equipment often has high-pressure hydraulic fluids that can damage skin or eyes from high-pressure leaks. Hydraulic system hoses and connections should be checked regularly for leaks and wear. Employees should be cautioned not to place hands near fluid leaks. Workers should be instructed about when to perform maintenance and repairs on equipment based on hours of operation or operational problems.

Fierros concluded with the following list of safety tips for workers: Get plenty of rest, take your work seriously, avoid distractions (cell phones), no alcohol or drugs, avoid shortcuts, report any injury, and follow company guidelines.

Training never ends
Castillo emphasized, “Training never ends. It’s continuous. Company supervisors and the company lead trainer are always training.” Employers are advised to hold a general pre-harvest training session for harvest crews and hold tailgate meetings before each shift to discuss safety issues and hazards specific to each worksite. In addition, employers should document each training session and maintain file records of training activity to have available for Cal/OSHA inspectors. Castillo advised employers, “Your goal for harvest should be zero accidents and zero injuries. If you see an employee doing something that’s not safe, stop them and educate them.”

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