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This article is from the January/February 2005 issue of Practical Winery & Vineyard Magazine. Order current or back issues here.


January/February 2005

PWV thanks the following contributors for the original text and/or input to this article: Mark Preston-Thomas, ACC Injury Prevention Consultant, New Zealand; Jill Bunting, author of Body & Vine: A Pruner’s Guide, New Zealand; Daniel Robledo, Viticulture Program coordinator, Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA; Frank Coster and Glenn Alexander, Bacchus Vineyard Management, Fulton, CA.

BY Tina Vierra

Hand pruning remains the single largest expense in vineyard operations, though mechanization has had a significant impact. Unfortunately, repetitive, tiring hand pruning takes a toll on workers, causing pain and injury. Vineyard managers in New Zealand and California are looking for ways to reduce such injuries, and experts report that injuries can be avoided with a little bit of training and a lot of supervision.

In New Zealand, vineyard injuries have been rising. In the space of three years, claims to the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) — the government-run, no-fault compensation and rehabilitation scheme — have doubled and the cost tripled.

“Not all the rising toll can be accounted for by the considerable growth of the New Zealand grapegrowing industry,” says New Zealand consultant Mark Preston-Thomas. “In Marlborough, a premier wine region that accounts for a third of vineyard injury claims, the ACC and industry stakeholders decided to do something about it.”

Strategies to manage muscle fatigue were presented to 170 workers from Montana Wines’ Fairhall Estate, the Marlborough Contractors Federation, and Marlborough Winegrowers early in 2004 at an injury prevention workshop organized by the three groups and Preston-Thomas.

Pruning injuries are usually caused or aggravated by work or activities that involve repetitive movement, sustained or constrained postures, or forceful movements.

Muscles and tendons can withstand fatigue and recover better if they are given a variety of tasks and regular rest breaks. Indeed, it may be the absence of variety and rest breaks that strains the muscles and tendons beyond their capacity for short-term recovery.

“We know that pruning requires good health and no arthritis,” says Daniel Robledo (Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA). “Employees working in repetitive tasks should be aware of this. If a task is too hard for a worker, he/she should stop doing that task and find an alternative one.” If a worker is willing to admit a problem and has other skills, the company can find another available job for that worker.

The question arises whether it is legal to screen the health of vineyard workers prior to hiring them for pruning. Mary Fortune, Senior Loss Control Consultant for California’s State Compensation Insurance Fund, says yes, within state guidelines.

“In California, an employer may require a pre-placement physical to determine if an applicant can safely perform the essential functions of the job and make the offer of employment contingent upon whether the person passes his or her physical,” Fortune explains. “The employer is not allowed to know any medical details of the physical. The doctor would just make a determination to hire or not to hire based on the physical and the job description.”

California vineyard managers report that repetitive-motion injury is less common among their pruning crews than other injuries. Most problems included cuts to fingers and hands, eye injuries from the canes, and even slips and falls on muddy vineyard grounds.

Robledo says that he hears from vineyard managers anecdotally that, with U.S. border restrictions tightening, younger vineyard workers are harder to find these days. Worker populations are aging, so productivity slows and the workers naturally tire sooner.

A more serious problem, which vineyard managers are trying hard to address, is getting workers to actually report an injury.

“There was a time when complaints equaled termination,” claims Glenn Alexander (Bacchus Vineyard Management, Fulton, CA). “Vineyard workers were too scared of losing their job to complain. They still are, to some degree. I believe it is a cultural issue and a language issue, to some extent, since some of our vineyard workers only recently arrived in the U.S. The only way to overcome this reluctance is to build mutual trust and respect with the workers.”

Another common complaint from vineyard managers, according to Robledo, is that if a company reports an injury claim to its workers compensation insurance provider, premiums rise. “We’re being punished for reporting injuries, so of course, we are reluctant to report them,” he says. “It’s a huge flaw in the system.”

The New Zealand workshop was run by occupational therapist Jill Bunting, who took workers through the equipment used in the vineyards and provided tips on reducing injuries.

Bunting was supported by New Zealand gym owner Jon Cunliffe, who told pruners how to prepare for work through body conditioning, non-workplace activities, and eating well. The usefulness of Cunliffe’s presentation came as surprise to attendees as much of the information was completely new to them.

“I focused very much on being fit for work. Just as athletes train for the physical aspects of their jobs, pruners also need to prepare their bodies for to be in the best possible shape,” Cunliffe says.

The four workshop sessions of one-and-a-half hours each covered a variety of topics, including nutrition, clothing, warm-up and stretching exercises, specialized supports to prevent injury, and user-friendly equipment.
After positive feedback from the Fairhall Estate employees, it was decided to hold this workshop annually in Marlborough just before the pruning season.

Robledo has some experience with this type of workshop in California. “State Compensation Insurance Fund safety representatives gave pep talks to workers at my family’s company, but I found that most, if not all, workers go back to old habits. Things went in one ear and out the other.”

Alexander agrees, “That is why you need good supervision, good leadership from the vineyard management. Most of the time, pruners are left in the fields after the supervisor gives them the morning’s instructions. The supervisor should stay or check on them frequently, specifically looking for signs of fatigue or injury.”

Another issue is the piece-rate system, under which many pruners get paid for the work they do. Workers are encouraged to go flat out and pay inadequate attention to tired muscles. But if pruners stop briefly, at least every 30 minutes to do stretches and relax, their productivity actually increases and they can earn more,” instructors at the New Zealand workshops told participants.

All of the California vineyard managers agree that piece-rate work should become a thing of the past. Pruners are far too prone to injure themselves when they put speed over quality and their own health. In extreme cases, some workers have had to be fired for lack of care for their own health or the quality of their work.

“Pruners lose the sense of quality work on a piece-rate basis,” notes Robledo. “Quality is hard enough to control. Many companies have switched to hourly pay for pruning to obtain quality.” Switching to hourly work also reduces conflicts between supervisors and pruners when supervisors point out poor cuts.

“The labor pool and management in New Zealand are very different from here in California,” observes Frank Coster (Bacchus Vineyard Management, Fulton, CA). “I’m not sure that some of the recommendations, such as diet and the use of fitness centers, would be accepted by workers here.”

Back and leg exercises have also been built into the daily exercise program at the Fairhall propagation unit in New Zealand, where nursery staff have been given exercises as part of normal daily work practice.

Opinion on the practice of having workers exercise to warm up is split among California vineyard managers. “My dad and I have pruned vines for a living since 1971, at our nursery, and in vineyards. We never warned up before pruning,” says Robledo.

“I really believe there can be a system of physical activities that can reduce or eliminate injury in this area,” Alexander reports.

“Exercises before beginning work are a good idea, but I doubt very many workers will take it seriously and continue doing it unless a supervisor is watching,” says Coster. “It will help with liability issues if you can show that you at least instructed the crews properly.”

The following sections are excerpted from Body and Vine — A Pruner’s Guide by Jill Bunting; they have been supplemented with input from the California vineyard managers.

Tips for workers

Personal protection

  • Make sure you have a good quality breakfast before starting work.
  • Wear warm clothing in winter — thermal underclothes, boot liners, thermal socks, a hat and lightweight thermal gloves, rain gear for wet California winter conditions.
  • Use sun protection in summer — hats, plus sun block on your face and ears and the backs of your hands.
  • Remember that smoking deprives your system of the oxygen it needs and inhibits circulation to your fingers and toes.
  • Stretch all the “high-use” areas of your body several times an hour, especially the forearms, back, and shoulders.
  • Pay attention to your personal fitness.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

California vineyard managers agree with the nutrition points and fueling up the body before starting work.
Robledo feels that worker teams would be reluctant to do warm-up exercises or stretch breaks, but Alexander says, “I would recommend scheduled, mandatory breaks with exercises if your crew faces a long pruning day or several days of pruning in a row. And supervisors should monitor the breaks.”

Your workplace

  • Keep workspace tidy and free of rubbish, which could cause falls.
  • Have your breaks in wind-free areas to prevent body chill and muscle tightening.
  • Report painful areas early to your employer — a timely day off, if heat and stretching are not working, may prevent long-term pain.
  • If you have had previous serious repetitive strain or overuse injuries, you should be looking at alternative employment that does not involve fixed flexion-type movements.
  • Have a copy of the stretches in a prominent place and do them regularly throughout each day.
  • Learn to detect muscle tension and stretch it out.
  • Ice is the first remedy for an acute injury.
  • Enjoy your work and take pride in achieving — negativity tightens muscles!

Coster and Alexander keep a few other injury-prevention devices around their workplace. To reduce eye injuries from pulling canes off trellising wires, workers wear safety glasses. And Coster believes nylon support straps work well to prevent elbow tendonitis in workers with elbow complaints. The straps are approximately two inches wide with Velcro on the ends. They are tightly wrapped around the arm just below the elbow to give the muscles and tendons added support.

Your tools

  • Use the right tool for the wood you are cutting — secateurs, loppers, pruning saw, or chain saw as required.
  • Choose tools that deliver the greatest power for the least effort.
  • Choose tools with a large gripping surface so that low, even pressure is exerted over the whole hand surface.
  • Have a grip that protects from hot or cold.
  • Keep cutting tools sharp.
  • Keep hinged areas oiled.
  • Put your hand pruners into your belt pouch when you are not using them.
  • Hang your loppers on your belt when you are not using them.
  • Strip-cut vines using your left and right hands equally when possible.

Of these tips, it is most important to use the right tools for the weight of wood being cut.

“Supervisors need to make sure that workers are not trying to cut thick wood without the proper tools — such as shears for canes and spurs, loppers for large spurs and small cordons, and saws for large cordons and trunks,” Coster confirms.

Short-handled secateurs or snips should only be used for hand pruning. Recent innovations of roll handles may decrease fatigue.

“I’m a big fan of rotating shear handles,” says Coster, and Alexander agrees. “I have far fewer flare-ups of elbow tendonitis and less fatigue to my hand. I notice, however, that very few workers use this type of shears.”

Similarly, pneumatic and hydraulic secateurs have facilitated pruning where continuous cuts are necessary, as in spur-pruning. New Zealand data show that these tools reduce repetitive strain injuries and fatigue, and pruning time, by about 20%. There are also electric secateurs with power packs available.

“I’ve tried the battery-operated pruning shears before,” reports Robledo. “They reduce finger work, but are too heavy to work with all day. But I’ve heard good comments from other vineyard managers about this type of pruning shears, including that workers love them once they get used to them.”

Alexander likes the battery-powered shears also. “I don’t find a weight issue, and speed and endurance are improved. There is an increased danger of cutting yourself, though.”

“We have one set of Electrocoup battery-powered pruning shears that we used last year,” Coster confirms. “The cost of these is over $1,000 each, which could be justified by faster work, but Glenn is right about more potential for serious injury. If you cut yourself accidentally with these, you’ll probably lose a finger.”

If using normal hand secateurs, a pair of long-handled loppers is also useful for cutting into two-year old wood.

Robledo believes the key factors leading to tired hands and wrists are related to the tools used. Inappropriate tools for the job, such as poor quality hand shears and loppers, are a big issue. Hand pruning shears that are too small or too big for the worker’s hands are another significant factor.

“Bahco Tools (formerly Sandvick) offers ergonomic pruning shears that fit the size of the hand,” reports Robledo. “The best hand-pruning shears are Felco and Bahco. I cannot recommend any other brands. For lopping, Bahco makes the best loppers in the world for grapevine pruning, and Corona loppers are good also.”

All of the vineyard managers note the importance of the condition of pruning tools. Poor tool condition is universally detrimental to work quality, work speed, and worker health. The tool’s blade, bushing, and pin should be checked frequently for wear, and blades should be sharpened often.

“Sharpen, sharpen, sharpen. Above all else, quality equipment and maintenance — well-oiled and sharpened shears — are the most important factors,” says Coster. “All supervisors should carry a ready supply of replacement pruning shears, blades, sharpening stones, and parts.”

Supervisors and vineyard managers can control many of the factors that lead to worker injury during pruning. While our New Zealand colleagues have introduced several new procedures and modern ideas into their vineyard practices, and the Americans stress tools and work supervision in their management practices, all vineyard managers can mix and match the guidelines above to create their own injury reduction programs.