Night Work: A Growing Trend in Western Agriculture?

Farmworker with head lamp at dusk

Farming doesn’t stop just because the sun sets. Across the West, a variety of crops are harvested at night, such as wine grapes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and corn. Harvest, equipment transportation, set up, and maintenance as well as field prep and repairs, irrigation work, and pesticide application are other activities done at night.

The general, unofficial consensus among a number of professionals involved in agriculture is that night work is increasing. Possible reasons include rising temperatures and recent heat illness prevention regulations, increasing labor shortages, product quality and taste-preferences, and time-sensitive harvests.

“The area’s cool nights create better working conditions…the temperature is more tolerable” and “grapes are firmer, making them easier to work with,” explains Lino Bozzano, VP of Vineyard Operation, in the Laetitita Vineyard and Winery blog, “Why We Harvest Fruit At Night.”

Tractor in corn field at nightWhile more growers may be adopting night time work, there is concern that insufficient awareness of the hazards associated with night work put agricultural workers at risk. This issue was brought up by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety stakeholders and advisors at the Fall 2016 Strategic Planning Retreat and the most recent External Advisory Board meeting.

Many safety risks of night work in agriculture are the same as the risks of day time work, but they may be exacerbated by night conditions, such as limited visibility due to poor lighting or fatigue due to the disruption of biological rhythms leading to trips, falls, or collisions. Other risks include greater exposure to nocturnal animals and even criminal activity if lighting is poor.

Whereas some farms go to great measures to light their fields and provide their employees with high visibility clothing, others rely on workers wearing headlamps or using car headlights to illuminate a field.

Current lighting standards require all tractors or ATVs used between an hour after sunset or an hour before sunrise be equipped with at least one headlight that illuminates 50 feet. The current lighting standard does not address dark areas where workers may be doing non-machine work, the bathrooms, or parking adjacent to fields.

A proposed lighting standard to improve field lighting and worker visibility has been drafted for California agricultural field operations taking place between sunset and sunrise. The proposed standards would: 1) require employers to provide and require workers to wear high visibility garments, such as reflective vests, and 2) illuminate at a set light intensity meeting areas, pathways, restrooms, drinking water, equipment maintenance, and work near stationary agriculture equipment or active harvest operations. The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is working on finalizing a regulatory package.

Night shift work has been shown in construction and hospital work to negatively affect health, including interruption of hormone release cycles, low immune response, cardiovascular disease, and miscarriage. The disruption of family life and social activities can lead to poor diet, stress, and lack of exercise. This is especially true if workers are picking up a second shift or working longer hours.

Currently, very little quantitative information is available on night work, such how many growers have adopted the practice, the kind of work being done at night versus the day, and how growers address nighttime health and safety risks.

Standard databases provide limited information. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics public records report the time of non-fatal injury by fixed time frames that cross day and nighttime hours (e.g., 4 pm to 8 pm), making it difficult to determine how many accidents occur in the dark or how many accidents occurred from actual farm work versus transportation to and from the work site.

WCAHS is working to define specific research questions that can shed light on this issue so that both growers and workers can safely benefit from the change in traditional work hours.

Answering the questions of how and why night work is increasing will likely have significance for labor, agriculture, and health policy.