Farmworker Safety First

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More than 550 citrus grove and landscape workers attended the seventh annual Ag Worker Training event held Jan. 20 at the St. Lucie County Fairgrounds west of Ft. Pierce. Each of the program break-out sessions were offered in English and Spanish, covering 12 safety and best management practice topics. Training program organizers goals were to inform workers about safety procedures to protect lives and the environment, lower the number of industry submitted insurance claims, and increase employers’ bottom lines.

“The use of two languages used by the presenters is fantastic,” said Mike Ziegler, owner of Agricultural Resource Management. “This is a good turnout for the people most important to receive the messages provided.”

Program leaders were from the UF/IFAS Indian River and Citrus Research and Education Centers along with UF/IFAS Extension agents from St. Lucie, Okeechobee, Miami-Dade, and Indian River Counties. Event sponsors were Scotts Fertilizer and Everglades Farm Equipment.

A full day of presentations and hands-on audience demonstrations included:
• fertilizer and pesticide best management practices
• mixing and loading pesticides
• tractor and equipment safety
• use and care of personal protection equipment
• worker protection standards
• fire safety techniques
• first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
• hazardous materials spill control and cleanup
• integrated pest management
• protection from venomous snakes, spiders, and Africanized honey bees
• citrus greening and canker identification
• personal hygiene and food safety.

Don’t Play With Fire Or Snakes

The St. Lucie Fire Department presentation featured a variety of fire extinguishers for a wide array of fire sources. Participants had hands-on training in actually using fire extinguishers to put out fires.

“Our workers were able to learn about the different types of fire extinguishers and which fires they can put out,” said Wayne Bohannon, Graves Brothers Groves Inc. in Vero Beach. “Some fire extinguishers won’t put out certain fires. It’s a good thing to know if there is a fire.”

Ken Gioeli, St. Lucie Cooperative Extension Agent III, Natural Resources, said venomous snakes such as the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, dusky pygmy rattlesnake, coral snake, and water moccasin can be found in many Florida regions. Equally threatening are poisonous spiders like black widows. Mammals such as raccoons, otters, and bats may harbor viruses, such as rabies. Feral hogs, he said, which are common to large ranches and groves, may use their tusks as weapons if they feel threatened.

“People working in Florida’s citrus orchards, vegetable fields, and any natural area may encounter dangerous critters,” said Gioeli. “It is important for workers to be able to identify the critters that might potentially cause them harm.”

Let The Games Begin

The tractor rodeo, landscape mower rodeo and canker and greening identification competitions were the day’s highlights. Attendees cheered their co-workers on as the safest, most competent operators emerged. Tractor and mower competitors were timed, but if the machines touched one of the markers delineating the course, 30 seconds were added for each infraction.

“Tractor drivers need to be exceptional in their understanding in physics, depth perception, and eye-hand coordination,” said Ziegler. “There are 100 things going on at once, so the skills these people have are exceptional.”

Competitors represented grower organizations from Indian River, St. Lucie, Highlands, Okeechobee, and Martin counties. For the competition, a 5075-M John Deer Tractor and 72-inch riding mower were provided by Everglades Farm Equipment of Ft. Pierce. A small, temporary grove of young citrus trees with a variety of disease and nutritional disorders stood at the center of the two competition tracks.

“The idea is for tractor drivers to handle the tractor and equipment safely. The best drivers don’t rush through the course, but rather take time to drive carefully and avoid penalties associated with hitting the course markers. It is a real challenge to back the trailer through the course without getting a penalty,” said Dr. Brian Boman, professor of agricultural engineering and the university’s statewide best management practices coordinator.

Twenty-year-old Jose Maldonado, Jr. was the winner for the tractor rodeo. He placed first with a time of 1.29 minutes, having successfully completed the relay with no marked flag interference. Based in Fellsmere, Maldonado is a heavy equipment operator for Quality Caretaking. He has been employed with the Quality for two years but has had ambitions to drive a John Deer tractor since he was very young.

Maldonado said the secret to his tractor success is ‘technique.’ He said he respects the heavy machine and his boss’s property and business investment.
“To drive a John Deer tractor has been my dream since kindergarten. It catches my attention and looks exciting,” said Maldonado. “You can do so many things with a tractor and not everyone has the privilege of driving one.”

Competitors for the citrus canker and greening identification relay examined a small grove of about 30 young trees positioned in containers. A number of the trees bore disease symptoms and others showed nutrition deficiencies.

Maria Lieffort, a worker with IMG Citrus Inc. in Vero Beach, placed first for the canker and greening identification competition. “I work with the fruit every day,” said Lieffort. “I can tell just by looking at a tree leaf what it has.”

Kristina Wright, St. Lucie County Parks and Recreation Maintenance Technician III, placed first for the landscape mower rodeo competition. She operates a mower as part of her work tasks. “I just took my time and didn’t knock over any buckets, and I watched the other drivers mess up,” said Wright.

Each place winner received a $50 Walmart gift card, and bag filled with items useful to those who work outdoors: a watertight box, knife, and sunglasses.

Robin Koestoyo is a media coordinator for the Indian River Research and Education Center.

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