By Ellis Brasch
Summer is the busiest time of year for many Oregon farmers. Harvesting crops such as berries, grass seed, and wheat. typically begins in late June and other crops are grown and harvested through September. Those months from June through September also account for more than 40 percent of accepted workers compensation claims for injuries.
Farming is also one of the most dangerous occupations in America. The most current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that fatalities among U.S. agricultural workers rose to 180 in 2015, an increase of 22 percent from the 148 cases reported in 2014. Farmworkers and laborers involved in crop, nursery, and greenhouse operations recorded 106 fatalities, an increase of 33 percent from 2014 and matched highest total ever reported (in 2010) for that occupational group.
On Oregon farms, falls and slips were the most common cause of accepted workers compensation claims for nonfatal injuries in 2016 – the most current year for available data – followed by injuries from being struck by (or against) an object, and overexertion.
Six workers died on Oregon farms in 2016, and there were five other workers whose nonfatal injuries required treatment for at least one night in a hospital. Not all of these cases were specifically work-related, however. For example, two workers had heart attacks and a third worker died from a bacterial infection after a fall. How did the work-related accidents happen? Here are six examples:
When? May 2016
Age of worker: 32
A worker was putting potted plants on a conveyer that fed them through an unguarded opening into a machine that automatically pruned them. The wind blew one of the potted plants over and, as the worker reached into the opening to set it back up, the rotating pruning blades severely lacerated his right hand and fingers. He was taken to the hospital where he remained overnight for treatment.
Employees had been trained to stop the blades before clearing the area around the opening and written procedures for the job said that a stick should be used to clean near the blades. However, it was a common practice to reach into the machine after the blades had stopped because no sticks were provided for the task – and even though the blades had stopped, the machine's engine was still running. Maintenance staff said that unless the pruning machine was completely turned off, the blades could start turning unexpectedly.
General equipment guarding – 437-004-1910 (4)(a)(A): Prevent contact with moving machinery parts by a guard, shield, or guarding by location:
Energy control program – 437-004-1275 (5)(a): Before doing any servicing or maintenance the employer must have a written energy control program with specific procedures, employee training and periodic reviews. It must ensure isolation of the equipment from the energy source and make it inoperative in a way to prevent injury.
When? June 2016
Age of worker: 62
A worker was alone in an empty onion storage facility doing demolition work on two large equipment access doors. He might have been using a right angle grinder and a reciprocating saw. A fire started while he was doing the work and his clothes were engulfed in flames. He had severe burns over 80 percent of his body and died two days later. The Umatilla fire district ruled the fire "accidental." Although the cause was never determined, contributing factors may have been a spark from grinder or the saw, combustible onion dust, and polyurethane foam that insulated the building.
No citations issued.
When? July 2016
Age of worker: 45
A worker had been operating a strapping machine that was attached to a hay press. He stopped the machine to change a roll of straps, then restarted it and used a compressed air wand to blow debris away from an opening between the machine and the machine's output load plate. As he reached into the unguarded opening the machine crushed his hand and amputated his thumb. The employer had installed a platform that made it easier for workers to clean the machine and maintain it, but the platform also made it easier for workers to contact the machine's unguarded moving parts.
Equipment guarding, functional components – 437-004-1970(5)(a): Guard to the fullest extent all functional components that must be exposed to operate.
The control of hazardous energy, energy control program – 437-004-1275(5)(a): Before doing any servicing or maintenance the employer must have a written energy control program with specific procedures, employee training, and periodic reviews. [The energy control program] must ensure isolation of the equipment from the energy source and make it inoperative in a way to prevent injury.
When? July 2016
Age of worker: 27
Two workers who had been harvesting wheat were preparing to tow a semi truck up a hill in a wheat field. They were trying to connect a tow strap between the semi truck and another vehicle – a water tender – when the water tender rolled backward and struck the workers. One worker was pinned between the vehicles and died at the scene. The other worker had severe facial injuries and was air-lifted to a hospital in Spokane where he was admitted for treatment. After the accident, the vehicle's braking systems were tested on level ground and on the hill in the wheat field; both the foot pedal brake and the parking break were working properly.
Parking – 437-004-3410(3)(d): If parked on a slope, the wheels of commercial and industrial vehicles must be blocked or chocked.
When? August 2016
Age of worker: 65
Two workers were harvesting garlic and driving separate tractors. One tractor was attached to a flatbed trailer loaded with totes. The other tractor pulled a garlic harvester equipped with an elevator that dropped the garlic bulbs into the totes. Both tractors had to move parallel to each other along each row of garlic. The drivers had driven tractors before, but never received any formal operator training or training about what to do when they reached the end of a row.
At the end of the first row, the worker who was pulling the garlic harvester raised the arm of the harvester elevator and the other driver started to back up his tractor so his co-worker had enough room to turn the harvester around. As the driver was backing up the flatbed trailer, he didn't notice that the elevator's belt was caught on his tractor's rollover protection bar and continued backing up.
The elevator arm suddenly pulled away from the rollover protection bar and struck the worker's left hand, crushing it and causing a severe laceration. The worker was taken to the hospital where he stayed overnight.
Vehicles, training for agriculture tractor operators – 437-004-3430(1) (e): Train all employees who drive an agricultural tractor about the operating practices… and about any other practices peculiar to the work environment. Do this training at the time of initial assignment to driving duties and at least annually after that. Employees must watch where they are going, especially at row ends, on roads, and around trees.
When? September 2016
Age of worker: 45
Two workers were standing on a raised platform on the bed of a truck as it was slowly pushed between rows of hops by another worker driving a front-loader tractor. The hop vines were so thick that it was impossible for any of the workers to see each other.
The 32-by 94-inch platform – located directly behind the cab, 11 inches above the truck bed and 51 inches above the ground – did not have guardrails and the workers were not required to use lifelines to prevent them from falling.
The workers were guiding loose hop vines hanging from a wire at the top of the trellises into the back of the truck, which had high side boards to contain the vines. The hop vines had been previously cut off at the ground by another crew and were left hanging from the top wires to be harvested. The worker who was driving the tractor happened to look down and noticed that one of the workers had fallen from the platform. The worker was covered in vines and it looked like the truck had run over him.
The tractor driver immediately honked the tractor horn twice, which was the designated "all-stop" signal and the crew called 911. The victim was still conscious and said his "whole body hurt" but he died shortly after emergency responders arrived.
General standards, supervision and competency – 437-004-0099(2)(c)(C): Require employees to: Use all means and methods, including… ladders, scaffolds, guardrails, machine guards, safety belts and lifelines, necessary to work safely where employees are exposed to a hazard.
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