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December 2013

Christmas harvest blitz

By Melanie Mesaros

Not everyone can experience Christmas like an Oregonian, with a lush and sparkling Douglas or Noble fir as a holiday fixture. But an Oregon tree grower is working to bring some Northwest cheer to places as far away as Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.

Holiday Tree Farms, Inc., a Corvallis­based family business, started shaking, bailing, and shipping trees in October, with the majority of the trees bound for locations outside the Northwest. Some 600 employees work the tree harvest, where sprains and strains are among the biggest source of claims. Earlier this year, a worker also jammed his finger while loading a tree.

"Trees are stacked by hand," said Mark Arkills, the production manager. "Our crews are also loading trees onto trucks and using chain saws to cut them one at a time. It's very physical work."

"We really pushed the whole idea of, 'I'll watch your back and you watch mine.' We have our crews do a five-minute safety meeting every morning." — Mark Arkills

Ahead of this year's production period, when 1 million trees in all will be harvested, Arkills said the company spent time focusing on safety training for its core employees and managers with the intent of bringing down claims.

"We really pushed the whole idea of, 'I'll watch your back and you watch mine,'" he said of the fast-paced season. "We have our crews do a five-minute safety meeting every morning."

The company instituted a new rule this year to help reduce back strains. Arkills said trees that are 7 to 8 feet in size must be lifted by two workers, instead of just one.

The Life of a Christmas tree

Holiday Tree Farms has about 100 returning workers, who are partnered with new, seasonal staff to ensure safe work practices are being followed.

"We really rely on the people who have been here forever to keep an eye on them," said Arkills.

It's also the more experienced workers who operate forklifts and chainsaws, and operate the hook during the helicopter field harvest. Arkills has worked in the Christmas tree business more than 25 years and said planning is the key.

"Part of being safe is having a plan and having a program for everything." — Mark Arkills

"My job is almost harder the month before we start harvest because of all the planning involved," he said. "Part of being safe is having a plan and having a program for everything. It helps when you have plenty of manpower and extra equipment."

The peak time for shipping trees runs between Nov. 30 and Dec. 15, when trucks begin to carry loads bound for California, Texas, and Utah.

"In the end, someone's life or an injury is way more important than a load of Christmas trees," said Arkills. "You can't do it at the risk of suffering an injury."

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