Sunday, October 12, 2003

A Good Vintage? Ergonomically Correct Wine

Some California vineyards are switching to smaller tubs in an effort to reduce back injuries among farm workers.
California workers' compensation reports indicate 43 percent of all reported injuries in agricultural jobs were sprains and strains. Overexertion was cited as a cause for 25 percent of these reported injuries.

But the switch to smaller bins is just one part of worker safety programs constantly under review in Napa and Sonoma counties, where agriculture ranks second only to construction in terms of deaths and injuries for workers, according to statistics from the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


Grape pickers have a high risk of repetitive stress trauma because they must perform rapid, repetitive motions of the upper body over a long period. They stoop, lift, carry and dump picking tubs up to 20 times an hour, which doesn't include gripping and moving the tub as they move down the row to cut grapes from the vines.

Research has found that by reducing the weight of the grapes in the tub to less than 50 pounds, workers suffer fewer strains, sprains and back injuries, which account for nearly half of all the reported injuries in California agriculture.
But ergonomic hazards are not the only workplace safety problems farmworkers face:
CalOSHA accident reports tell the stories of what can go wrong on Sonoma County farms, ranches and vineyards, the accidents that lead to serious injury or death: there's the report of the farmworker who was killed after being struck in the head while operating a post hole driver; the worker at a dairy who got his hand caught in a feed auger and had to have a finger amputated; the vineyard worker who was riding in the bed of a pickup and broke his leg when a bin of grapes crushed it.

Last week in Napa County, a vineyard manager was killed in a forklift accident.

"Nationally, agriculture is one of the most hazardous occupations, ranking right up there with construction and mining. But the amount spent on improving farm safety is just a fraction of what's spent on mining safety," Dr. Marc Schenker, director of the Western Center for Agriculture Health and Safety at UC Davis said.
And this is interesting:
Exposure to pesticides is another hazard for agricultural workers, but ranks below farm machinery accidents and repetitive strain trauma in the cause of illnesses and injuries, said Schenker.

"Despite most popular impressions, pesticides are not the biggest hazard affecting farmworkers, particularly in California, where we have fairly strict controls on their use," said Schenker.

In 2001, the last year for which data is available from California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, there were 10 reported cases of pesticide illnesses in agriculture in Sonoma County. Most of the illnesses were skin rashes or eye irritations caused by sulfur, an organic element used to control mold and mildew in the vineyards.
Interesting, perhaps, but probably not true according to those who actually work with farmworkers, especially if the hazard is being judged by the number of reported cases of pesticide poisoning.

First, almost all reported cases of pesticide poisoning are acute poisonings, e.g. doses so high that they cause severe vomiting, convulsions or death. Long term, or chronic poisonings generally are not detected, as it may take many years for chronic effects, like cancer or liver disease, to show up. And even then, farm workers are exposed to so many different pesticides -- most of which they can't even identify -- that it's difficult, if not impossible, to trace health effects back to exposures.

Finally, there is pressure on farmworkers from the growers not to report pesticide poisonings at all.