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Top 5 Hazards in Fruit and Tree Nut Growing

Did you know that the highest contributing occupation for serious claims in agriculture are workers in farm, forestry, and garden? Specifically, workers in fruit and tree nut growing account for 11 per cent of serious claims within the agriculture industry, according to Safe Work Australia’s Priority Industry Snapshot (Agriculture 2018). From this snapshot, we know the main cause of injuries in this sector are from muscular stress and falls – whether from a height or on the same level.

Like all sub-industries that make up the agricultural industry, horticulture which includes fruit and tree nut growers come with their own health and safety challenges. Whilst the list below may not be unique, they are the most common hazards in this sector.

Manual Handling

In fruit and tree nut growing, the number one injury causing hazard is manual handling. Most day to day tasks will require some form of manual handling which can lead to a range of sprains and strains.

Manual handling injuries generally occur one of two ways, from a sudden or immediate impact and include high force movements such as pushing and pulling trolleys, loading and unloading bulky items as well as lifting, carrying and restraining items. This might include moving and setting up bow ladders, for example.

The second way consists of low impact, but repetitive movement such as picking or pruning. Repetitive movement can cause damage, which could come from overextending or regularly being in awkward postures which can cause gradual wear and tear on your body.

Hazardous Substances

Use of chemicals in horticulture is common. When you fail to handle, store, and dispose of hazardous chemicals appropriately, you are risking illness and sometimes even death. This exposure to hazardous chemicals is often a preventable situation in fruit and tree nut growing and most horticultural workplaces.

Do you know what is classified as a hazardous chemical or substance? Generally, it is any material or mixture that can put a person at risk, this can include insecticides, herbicides, fuels, and cleaners. Exposure to these hazards can come in the form of vapours, liquids, and gases that can be corrosive and toxic.

As part of your hazardous chemical administrative process, you should ensure anyone using chemicals has received training in their safe use, and also maintain a digital Chemical Manifest for tracking.

Safe Ag Systems provides a simple solution included in its software. Maintain your chemical manifest in a digital system that can be accessed anywhere.

Don’t risk losing your paper Safety Data Sheets, save them and link to the digital copy. A chemical inventory will allow you to access a list as well as usage, location of use and weather conditions when spraying, etc.

When maintaining your chemical manifest, you must include a copy or link to the relevant manufacturers current Safety Data Sheet (SDS). The SDS must provide information on the hazardous chemical including ingredients, health and emergency response procedures, safe handling as well as transportation, storage and disposal.

When there is no other option and chemical exposure is likely, you must provide adequate personal protection equipment for your workers. Safety Data Sheets will guide you on appropriate equipment.

Heat and UV Exposure

To be able to function at optimum levels, your body needs to maintain a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. Exposure to UV as well as heat, is one of the hazards as a grower that needs addressing.

When you think of heat-related illnesses your mind will picture heat stroke and exhaustion, fainting, heat rash or cramps. Are you also aware that heat can impact your ability to concentrate and it also affects how your body absorbs chemicals?

No matter whether your workers are indoors or outdoors, heat can cause severe health and safety issues. However, when working outdoors ultra-violet radiation (UVR) is a real threat that should be managed. In NSW alone, between 2006/07 – 2016/17, workers compensation claims relating to skin cancer amounted to cost of over $12.5 million (Safe Work NSW, working in extreme heat). Damage caused by UVR is permanent, but there are a number of preventions and protective methods that can be utilised.

It is recommended that when outdoors, workers should wear sun safe PPE made of suitable material. This includes a broad-brimmed or legionnaires hat, wrap-around sunglasses, long sleeved shirts with collars, trousers and at least SPF 30+, broad-spectrum sunscreen. As part of your sun safe commitment consider incorporating SunSmart’s resource tools such as the free SunSmart app or sunscreen calculator.  

As an additional benefit, long sleeve shirts also help lessen the risk of spider and other insect bites when working in and around trees. Wearing boots can also help protect against snakes.

Machinery & Equipment

 As we always mention, workers have the right to go home safe each day. With the aim to make your workplace safer and work easier, you may use plant, machinery, and equipment to assist with tasks. This could include forklifts, tractors, trailers, quadbikes/ATVs and power tools.

Whilst these mechanical aids assist in the reduction of manual handling and increase efficiency, they do present their own risks and hazards. Your workers need to be trained in the correct use of each piece of machinery and equipment.

It’s important to have a basic traffic management plan keeping vehicles and pedestrians separated as best you can. Tractors, trucks or other vehicles used to collect field bins during picking can hit an unsuspecting worker, so awareness and a plan will help keep people safe.

Forklifts are often used for numerous tasks including lifting, stacking and transportation. When operated incorrectly it can result in serious injury and even death through workers being hit or crushed, which is why only licenced operators should use a forklift. There is also a real risk of a forklift tip-over if overloaded or unstable. Identifying safety controls needs to be part of your S.A.F.E.  process to manage risks. Plant machinery and equipment should have correct machine guarding over moving parts or areas where a person could be injured - incorporate this as part of safety controls.

Incorporating machinery and equipment in your day to day operations presents itself with a hidden hazard, noise. As an employer (PCBU) it is your responsibility to ensure minimise the exposure to noise and where this is not possible, to provide and ensure all workers utilise personal hearing protection such as earmuffs or earplugs. Whilst it may not present itself straight away, years of exposure to noise levels above 85 decibels can result in permanent hearing loss.


Falls can occur from a height, or on the same level. Combined, falls were the cause of 23% of serious injuries to people working in fruit and nut tree growing.

Fruit pickers in particular climb ladders to reach and pick fruit from tree canopies. The correct positioning and use of ladders such as bow ladders by workers picking fruit can minimise or avoid falls that result in injuries. Ensure workers are trained in their safe use, including how to safely carry and set up ladders as well as how to work safely from a ladder. Training your works to avoid overreaching may seem so simple, yet often ignored resulting in falls. Make sure ladders are in good condition also, checking the structure and integrity on a regular basis.

Although these are just some of the injury causing hazards, they are not the only ones faced by fruit and tree nut workers. The risk of slips, trips and falls can be managed with simple housekeeping measures, such as keeping walkways clear of obstructions such as tools, cabling or loose mats, ensuring wet or greasy spills are cleaned up promptly and making sure your workers are wearing adequate footwear for their working conditions. Even just reminding people to watch where they are walking, especially if they are carrying objects which could obstruct their view can help.

Where is the industry going?

In 2013-14 fruit and nuts had a gross value production of $3,187 million and thanks to high standards across the supply chain, the Australian Horticultural industry has developed a reputation as a sustainable producer of premium safe food (Department of Agriculture, Horticulture fact sheet).

With health and safety as a priority, 2020 and 2021 are set to bring challenging disruptions. Seasonal labour shortages are a reality due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, meaning experienced overseas workers that usually contribute will be in short supply.


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Disclaimer: Content on this website may be of relevance to users outside of Australia, but content links and examples are specific to Australia. Please check with your local authority for your country and industry requirements.

Originally published 25 November, 2020.

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