Coping with repetitive motion injuries in the orchard

Photos courtesy of Jim Carrabba.

While repetitive motion injuries (RMI)—such as carpal tunnel syndrome—have gotten a lot of publicity as an occupational hazard among office workers, growers know that injuries to hands, wrists and arms from RMI is a serious concern in fruit orchards as well.

Orchard pruning motion injuries are common when a worker performs the same motions over and over again for hours on end—often in awkward and unnatural positions. These repeated motions could cause not only carpal tunnel syndrome but also a variety of other RMI problems such as tendonitis (tennis elbow), flexor tenosynovitis (trigger finger), bursitis (inflammation of the sacs in joints) and muscle damage.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that RMIs make up 60 percent of all workplace injuries; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calculates that one-third of all workers’ compensation claims are because of repetitive motion injuries.

“Many growers say that [RMI] pain is a problem in the winter, when a lot of the orchard pruning is done,” says Jim Carrabba, an agricultural safety specialist with the North-east Center for Agricultural Occupational Health and the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health.

RMI problems cause pain, tingling, redness, numbness and even loss of muscle strength. Over time, if not treated, RMIs can cause temporary or even permanent injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves.

“If left untreated (RMI) becomes chronic and very hard to treat with physical therapy and medications. A last resort is surgery, which very often is not helpful,” says Peter Kofitsas, a physical therapist, nutritionist, and performance trainer based in Rivervale, N.J.

While taking care of your orchard calls for repetitive tasks—such as pruning your trees—you can reduce your chances of getting injured this winter by following these steps:

1. Take Breaks, Rotate Tasks
Make sure you don’t do the same motion hour after hour, suggests Dr. Jamey T. Schrier, a physical therapist based in Rockville, Md.

“Take frequent breaks,” he suggests. After 20 to 30 minutes of a repetitive activity, take a quick 30-second to one-minute rest to give your hand and arm a chance to recover. Schrier also recommends taking that time to do wrist stretches and curls—flexing and extending the hand and wrist—to minimize the stress placed on tendons.

Make sure you alternate your pruning activities; for example, every few hours rotate among pruning low branches with a hand clipper to using a chain saw, to even raking or doing other farm chores.

“Alternate between working on the ground and on a ladder,” suggests Carrabba.

Also check your body posture to ensure you are not in awkward positions for hours when pruning: hold your wrists naturally (not flexed) as much as possible; make sure your fingers don’t extend wide around handles (or that you are not gripping too tightly); and if you must reach branches overhead, use a stepladder rather than risk straining your arms and back.

2. Use Ergonomic Tools
Cheap pruning tools typically are not ergonomically correct, notes Carrabba.

“You need tools and pruners that will fit the hand and body … these tools are typically more costly but are worth the extra expense,” he says.

By spending more on these tools you will reduce the risk of RMI—and save money due to lost time at work because of injury and medical costs. Ergonomic tools will also help make workers more productive, says Carrabba.

Ergonomic pruning tools are better designed, with extra padding, the correct angle and other features to minimize strain and injury.

Carrabba notes that ergonomically designed pruning tools include the following features:

  • Lightweight and evenly distributed weight (made of aluminum, plastic or composite materials).
  • Handles that are padded and may include premolded handles with indentations to fit fingers and to cradle thumbs. Some padded materials can even be customized to your hand by heating, then grasping when warm in order to mold the pad to your hand and finger shape.
  • Bent handles to keep wrists in a natural position.
  • Loppers with bumpers between the handles to absorb impact during pruning.
  • Tools are designed to be used by either right or left hands (this feature will allow you rest one hand while you work with the other hand). The tool can be specifically designed for the right or left hand (in this case you may have to purchase two tools).
  • Chain saws should have angled handles.
  • Power tools should have anti-vibration system.

Make sure you try out the tool first before you purchase in order to see if the pruning tool feels good to your hand.

If all else fails and injuries become chronic, Carrabba says, “… there are always electronic pruners,” which will cut pruning time and help reduce some of the dangers of RMI. “Only a little squeeze on the trigger is needed,” he says.

3. Protect Your Wrists and Hands
In addition to using ergonomically correct tools for pruning, take added precautions by supporting your hands, wrists and arms with specially designed bands.

“[Bands] worn around the forearms [are designed] to decrease stress and irritation to the affected muscles,” says Kofitsas. Wrist support bands can also be used to keep the wrist and hands in the proper position.

“Ideally, a worker should try to balance repetitive movements with other activities to give the muscles a chance to rest and recuperate so they don’t break down,” says Kofitsas. It also helps to eat anti-inflammatory foods, suggests Kofitsas, such as salmon, eggs, berries, vegetables and whole grains, and avoid inflammatory fare like fried foods, cookies, crackers, hydrogenated oils and simple sugars.

Another important tip is to make sure that pruning is not the only exercise you are getting. Do frequent exercises to build up muscles in your shoulder and mid-back. You can also do conditioning exercises to strengthen your hand and arms. Consult with your doctor first before starting any exercise regime.

4. Stop When in Pain
Remember to stop work when you feel any pain.

“It may start with a little pinch,” says Miguel Charles, health and fitness coach and owner of 24/7 Bodyworks, a health center based in New York City. However, that little pinch or pain may be a signal to the brain that something is not right, he says. “Most of us don’t do anything about the signal. Sometimes it goes away, then comes back stronger,” he says.

Charles suggests that at the first sign of pain, take the following steps:

  • Get the muscle to relax; use hot water (in a shower or bath) or a heating pad; use stretching exercises and/or massage the area.
  • Take time off from using the area that is in pain.
  • Start a habit of stretching a few times a week.
  • Strengthen the muscles around the area with exercise.

“The sooner you treat it, the faster it heals,” says Charles. “Stay off of it for a period of time.”

You may also want to call your doctor or health care provider before it gets worse.

Resources

For a list of companies that provide ergonomically designed tools, as well as additional resources for prevention and treatment, visit the Growing magazine forum on www.farmingforumsite.com.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.