Monthly Safety Blast – Ergonomics For Farm Workers

According to NIOSH, “the goal of the science of ergonomics is to find the best fit between worker and job conditions.” For those in agriculture, forestry, and fishing (AgFF), work is not often accommodated to fit the needs of the worker. Work is strenuous, laboring, and tiresome. This kind of work environment can lead to various injuries and disorders.

NIOSH created a guide called Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers that provides tips and solutions for employers on how to adapt the workplace to the worker. Despite the advancement of farm machinery and equipment, many farms still rely on workers to plant and harvest by hand and often in a stooped position. Workers can also injure themselves when they:

    • carry heavy and bulky items in awkward positions
    • kneel often
    • work with their arms above shoulder level
    • move their hands and wrists repetitively

In logging and forestry, workers can be subject to hand-arm or whole-body vibration after spending long hours on machinery.

When workers are paid on piece rate, they have a reason to keep up a rapid, sustained pace. Overexertion intensifies all the other risk factors.

Strains and sprains are caused by excessive reaching, bending, lifting, gripping, squatting, or twisting of hands, shoulders, or body. In general, any work performed with high force, with many repetitions, or in a position that feels awkward is risky. Even a motion that is harmless in and of itself, like stretching out the arm to grasp an object, or squeezing a tool, may put the worker at risk of injury if it is repeated over and over.

Backaches and pain in the shoulders, arms, and hands are the most common symptoms that farm workers report. These injuries can be disabling, which can affect the worker’s earnings and the grower’s profits.1

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are also common among these injuries. They affect the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons.

Examples of the MSDs include:

    • Carpal tunnel syndrome
    • Tendinitis
    • Rotator cuff injuries (affects the shoulder)
    • Epicondylitis (affects the elbow)
    • Trigger finger
    • Muscle strains and low back injuries

So how can one implement ergonomics in the workplace?

According an article by OSHA, employers can start with the following:

  1. Provide Management Support
    1. Management should define clear goals and objectives for the ergonomic process, discuss them with their workers, assign responsibilities to designated staff members, and communicate clearly with the workforce.
  2. Involve Workers
    1. A participatory ergonomic approach, where workers are directly involved in worksite assessments, solution development and implementation is the essence of a successful ergonomic process.
  3. Provide Training
    1. Training is an important element in the ergonomic process. It ensures that workers are aware of ergonomics and its benefits, become informed about ergonomics related concerns in the workplace, and understand the importance of reporting early symptoms of MSDs.
  4. Identify Problems
    1. An important step in the ergonomic process is to identify and assess ergonomic problems in the workplace before they result in MSDs.
  5. Encourage Early Reporting of Symptoms
    1. Early reporting can accelerate the job assessment and improvement process, helping to prevent or reduce the progression of symptoms, the development of serious injuries, and subsequent lost-time claims.2

Whether you work in or with agriculture, forestry, or fishing, ergonomics is an essential part of worker safety and health. The prevention of work-related disorders and injuries can help lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity and reduce lost or restricted work time.

Producers and workers can also review these additional resources on injury prevention in the workplace: