Adapted from Y.C. Ko’s article, “Bamboo and cane”, “Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety”, 3rd edition.
Bamboo, which is a subfamily of the grasses, exists as more than a thousand different species, but only a few species are cultivated in commercial plantations or nurseries. Bamboos are tree-like or shrubby grasses with woody stems, called culms. They range from small plants with centimetre-thick culms to giant subtropical species up to 30 m tall and 30 cm in diameter. Some bamboos grow at a prodigious rate, up to 16 cm in height per day. Bamboos rarely flower (and when they do, it may be at intervals of 120 years), but they can be cultivated by planting their stalks. Most bamboos came from Asia, where they grow wild in tropical and subtropical areas. Some species have been exported to temperate climates, where they require irrigation and special care during the winter.
Some bamboo species are used as vegetables and may be pickled or preserved. Bamboo has been used as an oral medicine against poisoning since it contains silicic acid which absorbs poison in the stomach. (Silicic acid is now produced synthetically.)
The wood-like properties of bamboo culms have led to their use for many other purposes. Bamboo is used in building houses, with the culms as uprights and the walls and roofs made from split stems or lattice work. Bamboo is also used for making boats and boat masts, rafts, fences, furniture, containers and handicraft products, including umbrellas and walking sticks. Other uses abound: water pipes, wheelbarrow axles, flutes, fishing rods, scaffolding, roller-blinds, ropes, rakes, brooms and weapons such as bows and arrows. In addition, bamboo pulp has been used to make high-quality paper. It is also grown in nurseries and used in gardens as ornamentals, wind breaks and hedges (Recht and Wetterwald 1992).
Cane is sometimes confused with bamboo, but is botanically different and comes from varieties of the rattan palm. Rattan palms grow freely in tropical and subtropical areas, particularly in Southeast Asia. Cane is used to make furniture (especially chairs), baskets, containers and other handicraft products. It is very popular due to its appearance and elasticity. It is frequently necessary to split the stems when cane is used in manufacturing.
The processes for cultivating bamboo include propagation, planting, watering and feeding, pruning and harvesting. Bamboos are propagated in two ways: by planting seeds or by using sections of the rhizome (the underground stem). Some plantations depend upon natural reseeding. Since some bamboos flower infrequently and seeds remain viable only for a couple of weeks, most propagation is accomplished by dividing a large plant that includes the rhizome with culms. Spades, knives, axes or saws are used to divide the plant.
Growers plant bamboo in groves, and planting and replanting bamboo involves digging a hole, placing the plant into the hole and backfilling soil around its rhizomes and roots. About 10 years is required to establish a healthy grove of bamboo. Although not a concern in its native habitat where it rains often, irrigation is necessary when bamboos are grown in drier areas. Bamboo requires a lot of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen. Both animal dung and commercial fertilizer are used. Silica (SiO2) is as important for bamboos as is nitrogen. In natural growth, bamboo gains enough silica naturally by recycling it from shed leaves. In commercial nurseries, shed leaves are left around the bamboo and silica-rich clay minerals such as Bentonite may be added. Bamboos are pruned of old and dead culms to provide room for new growth. In Asian groves, dead culms may be split in the fields to hasten their decay and add to the soil’s humus.
Bamboo is harvested either as a food or for its wood or pulp. Bamboo shoots are harvested for food. They are dug from the soil and cut with a knife or chopped with an axe. The bamboo culms are harvested when they are 3 to 5 years old. Harvesting is timed for when the culms are neither too soft nor too hard. Bamboo culms are harvested for their wood. They are cut or chopped with a knife or an axe, and the cut bamboo may be heated to bend it or split with a knife and mallet, depending upon its end use.
Rattan palm cane is usually harvested from wild trees often in uncultivated mountainous areas. The stems of the plants are cut near the roots, dragged out from thickets and sun-dried. The leaves and the bark are then removed, and the stems are sent for processing.
Hazards and Their Prevention
Venomous snakes present a hazard in plantation groves. Stumbling over bamboo stumps may cause falls, and cuts can lead to tetanus infection. Bird and chicken droppings in bamboo groves can be contaminated with Histoplasma capsulatum (Storch et al. 1980). Working with bamboo culms can lead to knife cuts, particularly when splitting the culms. Sharp edges and the ends of bamboos can cause cuts or punctures. Hyperkeratosis of the palms and fingers has been observed in workers who make bamboo containers. Pesticide exposures are also possible. First aid and medical treatment is required to deal with snake bites. Vaccine and booster vaccine should be used to prevent tetanus.
All cutting knives and saws should be maintained and used with care. Where bird droppings are present, work should be conducted during wet conditions to prevent dust exposure, or respiratory protection should be used.
In harvesting palm cane, workers are exposed to the dangers of remote forests, including snakes and venomous insects. The bark of the tree has thorns that may tear the skin, and workers are exposed to cuts from knives. Gloves should be worn when the stems are handled. Cuts are also a risk during manufacture, and hyperkeratosis of the palms and fingers may often occur among workers, probably because of the friction of the material.