By: Vashti Kelly, Program Manager
Research on the subject of ergonomics and work-related musculoskeletal disorders in agriculture dates back almost three decades, it still has not made its way to the forefront of discussion on agricultural injuries. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that until recently, farmworkers were not a part of the discussion on agriculture at all. The main concern with regards to farmworkers’ efficiency in their working environment was centered on whether or not produce was being harvested and at what rate. Not a lot of people are thinking about how to adapt farm work to the worker – to reduce ergonomic stressors or eliminate potential musculoskeletal disorders.
Imagine being bent over all day picking strawberries in the insufferable heat or worse, hanging precariously on a ladder reaching for apples in the excruciatingly cold rain. Every crop presents its own unique challenges.
Farm workers face some the highest risks of work-related injuries and deaths in the nation. Depending on the crop farm workers spend hours stooped over; crouching; bending and reaching; climbing; and in a plethora of other precarious positions lifting, hauling, planting, cutting, and picking. As a result, farm workers suffer from back and shoulder pain; strains and pulls in their arms, hands, legs, and ankles from the repetitive frequent activities or with awkward postures associated with farm work. These injuries to the muscles, tendons, and nerves are known as work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). However, unlike the rest of the American workforce a farm worker can’t call out sick because a day out of work means they are now out of a job. Despite all of our technological advances the worker remains an integral part of all aspects of farm work, especially in the labor intensive sector of cultivating and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables.
How are work-related MSDs prevented?
The first rule of occupational health and safety is to eradicate or mitigate work hazards. In the case of work-related MSDs the main hazard is making the same repetitive motions at work. Of course there are other contributing factors such as applied force, static body positions, and the pace of work. Thus, since avoidance of repetitive activities is not feasible, elimination or preventive strategies may be the only answers.
Many of the jobs that farm workers once did have been replaced by machinery and as we continue to improve technology mechanization becomes more of a threat. Nevertheless, there are still certain jobs best done by human hands and that is where preventive strategies are important.
Therefore, the main effort to protect farm workers from work-related MSDs would focus on job rotation or teamwork, utilizing better equipment and tools, and implementing healthier work practices. It for this reason that we do not hear a great deal surrounding the issue of ergonomics in agriculture; addressing the problem effectively would require individual examination of crops and their related tasks. And, the interventions would need to be acceptable to both farmers and farm workers in order to have a significant impact.
In the meantime, there are simple solutions for protecting oneself with use of proper lifting and bending techniques to ensure back safety.
There is also a document that has been created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers.
Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers