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April 2013

Going The Distance

Meet a leading Oregon health and safety professional

Phil Olson

Company: Red's Mountain Blueberry, Amity

Safety manager: Phil Olson

Workforce: 12 to 450 (peak of season)

Common Hazards: Machinery (ATVs, tractors, and harvesters), chemical exposures

What is your background and safety philosophy?

Our operation started in the 1970s as a one-man show with only a tractor and a plow and has been developed into one of the state's largest commercial berry farms. We farm 420 acres of blueberries and 70 acres of marionberries. Through hard work and strict safety standards, we have nurtured a work environment that puts the well being of the employee before the pursuit of profit. I have always taken the mindset that I would not want to put an employee in a situation where I would not want to put myself.

What are some of the unique safety challenges you have managed at your farm?

In recent years, we've had to address the increased public demand for food safety standards, while also dealing with additional insecticide sprays during harvest for fruit flies. By being proactive and installing a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program before it was required and strictly adhering to pesticide labels, we have been able to produce a product that is highly demanded and safe to the consumer as well as myself and employees.

How do you manage your workers' exposure to pesticides and other chemicals?

We always look for the safest alternative. We have field monitors, along with the placement of hundreds of insect trapping devices in the field to identify whether or not we have a problem. There's no need to spray if we don't have a threat.

Our management is trained on all current pesticide safety standards and we require all employees to use the recommended Personal Protective Equipment and enforce posting requirements to minimize employee exposure. To streamline pesticide records, we adopted an electronic system that not only keeps records that we give to the processor, but also makes work orders with all the pertinent information and instructions our employees need to safely and efficiently make pesticide applications.

How do you keep your crews, many of whom are Spanish speakers, engaged in safety day to day?

All of our management is fluent in Spanish, which allows them to clearly communicate safety information and makes training much easier. This also makes our line employees comfortable to expressing safety concerns that they would otherwise hold back if there was a language barrier. In addition to bilingual management, the pesticide software program can create the work orders in Spanish, which greatly eliminates confusion and reduces mistakes.

What are some things you do to keep your safety committee effective?

We try to focus discussion topics on future activities on the farm. We do this by recalling what worked and did not work in the previous year. For example, in June we are preparing to harvest and discuss harvest safety, recalling the previous cycle and what we can implement into this year's process.

What advice do you have for others in the agriculture industry hoping to make a difference when it comes to safety?

The safety of your employees should be the No. 1 focus for you as a manager or owner. Be active in your safety program and always strive to improve what you're already doing. Work with and utilize the resources available from Oregon OSHA, rather than waiting until an inspector is knocking on your door. Develop a mindset that you can't build a successful operation by yourself. Attention to the needs and safety of your employees is critical. This practice on our farm is no doubt one of the reasons the average length of employment of our permanent employees is more than 22 years.

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