Farmers and farm workers face a relatively high risk of work-related musculoskeletal injury compared to other occupations. That’s because agriculture often involves highly repetitive tasks, lifting heavy loads, being in awkward positions, exposure to sustained vibration and other physical situations that are tough on the body. Organic farming often requires even more labor-intensive tasks like hand weeding, so it’s essential to keep injury at bay.
Recognizing this problem and seeking ways to prevent injury can have many positive effects. Careful attention to ergonomics can improve production efficiency, lower labor costs, reduce injury absences and turnover and lead to lower medical costs. All this means higher profits and greater well-being for farmers, their families and their employees.
What follows are some techniques and tools that can help prevent common injuries on the farm.
Lift smart. When lifting and lowering, get a good grip on the object and keep it close to your body. Place your feet close to the load and lift slowly, smoothly and mostly by straightening the legs. Even relatively light loads lifted away from the body can create injurious stress levels on the spine.
Don’t reach forward when lifting an object. Move other objects out of the way first to get to the needed items. While lifting, always rotate the body by moving the feet, rather than twisting or bending the trunk. Avoid repetitive lifting; alternate the task with other tasks, and use mechanical assistance such as lift tables, hoists and conveyors, whenever possible.
Drive smart. Reduce exposure to vibration when driving vehicles through the use of suspension seats that have appropriate vibration-dampening characteristics. A simple, low-cost modification that can be made to older tractor seats is the addition of an air polymer-based gel seat cushion. This can reduce the vibration and discomfort that comes from riding on the tractor. Available from companies such as Cross Gel, at www.flexgel.com or 888-435-2874
Make sure your farm vehicles have good seat positioning and lumbar support. Vehicle seats should have the flexibility to comfortably accommodate people of different sizes and shapes. Seat cushions may be called for in older farm vehicles, too.
Adjust workstation height. When washing, sorting, packing or labeling products, set the height of the work surface to maintain worker comfort, productivity and health. If possible, adjust the workstation height to accommodate individual workers; otherwise, set the height to suit the average person. For lightweight items, efficient work height is halfway between wrist and elbow, measured when the arm is held down at the worker’s side. For heavier items, it is slightly lower. Could some workers use a step stool? Could some tasks be done while sitting? Consider setting up workstations so that workers move produce toward your leading hand, for example from left to right for right-handed people. That provides more control and accuracy.
Avoid stooping, kneeling and squatting. Prolonged stooping or kneeling to harvest and weed are some of the activities that put vegetable and berry growers in one of the highest risk groups for occupational injuries. Yet, stoop labor is unavoidable on berry and vegetable farms, since the plants and soil need to be tended by hand at times. If you spend too much time stooping, kneeling or squatting, you may experience fatigue, muscle soreness or injuries. Here are some tools that can help avoid unhealthy body positions in the field.
Use a strap-on stool for fieldwork. An adjustable, strap-on seat can be used that lets you sit while you work. One-legged milking stools are available that feature a nylon belt that fastens around the waist, with straps extending from the belt to the seat of the stool that adjust to fit your body. Once you have fastened the belt and adjusted the straps, the stool moves with you and is easy to sit down on again in a new location. The seat is usually made of durable, hard plastic, and the single metal leg can be adjustable to different heights for performing a variety of tasks. Some of these lightweight stools have a wide, spring-like base so you don’t sink into the ground. They are called milking port-a-stools and are available for under $50 from farm and ranch suppliers such as Nasco, (see www.eNasco.com or call 800-558-9595)
Buy a pot-filling machine. These can save, time, money, and avoid worker injury. Simpler units consist of a soil hopper that you fill with potting mix. An electric motor powers a conveyor with paddles that continuously raises soil and drops it into a chute. A worker places a pot or tray under the chute and lets soil fall into it, and then places the next container into place to get filled. Most models are designed to recycle the overflow soil. Some pot-filling machines accommodate a range of sizes and shapes, while others take a specific size pot. These machines work best on a hard, level surface and require an electric power source.
With a pot-filling machine, you eliminate the repetitive task of filling containers by hand. Workers who scoop soil into pots or trays for hours on end can suffer wear and tear on muscles and joints in the fingers, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck. Several models of pot and tray-filling machines are available from Ball Seed Co., www.ballseed.com or 800-879-BALL.
Build a cart for low-growing crop harvest. When harvesting strawberries, greens or other crops close to the ground, a special harvest cart can reduce or eliminate the time spent in awkward, potentially damaging postures, such as kneeling or stooping. Using such a cart, you can work directly over the crop bed instead of twisting from the aisle. The cart carries you and your container, so there is less stress on your body compared to carrying by hand. You can change position more frequently, so you are less tired than you would be without the cart. This cart may let you work slightly faster, but it isn’t suitable for going a long distance in a short time.
There are seven main parts to the cart; six are fabricated from steel, the seat is made from plywood. The wheels are ready-made, and common hardware is used to put it all together. You can add accessories such as a sunshade or radio bracket. A detailed set of plans is available that describes how to make each part, including what machines or tools are needed. For more information on this cart, and other ergonomic tools and tips for horticulture, call 608-252-1054 or visit the Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits Web site at http://www.bse.wisc.edu/hfhp/.
The author is Vegetable and Berry Specialist with University of Vermont Extension based at the Brattleboro office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.