Farming involves hard physical work, and over time it takes a toll on farmers and farmworkers. That can lead to lost work time, which reduces individual income as well as farm profitability. Understanding the ergonomics of farmwork can help workers avoid common injuries.
Vegetable farming typically involves long hours on a tractor performing a variety of field operations. To avoid operator stress and injury, use a well-cushioned seat with good suspension and sturdy back support. Seats that swivel to allow easier turning of the body can be helpful, as can rearview mirrors that reduce the need to turn and look back. It also makes sense for the operator to take frequent breaks.
Photos by Vern Grubinger.
Ergonomics is the study of efficiency in working environments. By finding the best fit between workers and job conditions, one can also avoid injuries. Much of the following information is adapted from a publication of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) titled "Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers."
Farmworkers get backaches and pains in the shoulders, arms and hands more than any other health problem. These are typically a result of chronic exposure to physical stresses related to working in a stooped position, carrying heavy weights in awkward positions, kneeling often, working with arms above shoulder level, moving hands and wrists repetitively, or vibration from farm equipment. In general, any work performed with high force or in a position that feels awkward may put a worker at risk of injury, especially if it's often repeated.
To reduce the chance of sprains and strains, you may need to reposition work items in relation to workers' bodies, redesign the way a job is done, modify a tool or use a different tool altogether. You may not be able to implement all of the ideas listed here, but even partial or small changes can reduce injuries. Following are some ergonomic guidelines for different types of farmwork.
Guidelines for handwork
- Avoid placing needed tools or other items above shoulder height.
- Items that are used often should be positioned within 17 inches of the worker's body.
- When movements are repeated over and over, as in picking or weeding, allow time for adequate recovery by having the worker alternate with a low-repetition task. For example, a worker who performs a high-repetition weeding task should be given other tasks that don't require repetitive hand motions, like carrying the finished boxes to the loading area.
- Provide seated jobs. Sitting down while working reduces strain on the lower back and legs. Standing causes legs to swell more than walking does. The best jobs are those that allow workers to do different types of work, changing from sitting to standing to walking and back again.
- Allow adequate clearances for feet and knees for both standing and sitting workers, so they can get close to the work and avoid reaching.
- Provide floor mats for standing workstations to reduce fatigue.
- For standing work, use the proper workstation height. For men this is typically 40 to 43 inches for light work and 36 to 39 inches for heavy work; for women this is typically 37 to 39 inches for light work and 33 to 35 inches for heavy work.
Proper workstation height can make standing work more comfortable and less stressful on the body. For men this height is typically 40 to 43 inches for light work and 36 to 39 inches for heavy work; for women this is typically 37 to 39 inches for light work and 33 to 35 inches for heavy work.
Guidelines for using hand tools
- When tools require force, handle size should allow the worker to grip all the way around the handle so that the forefinger and thumb overlap by 3/8 inch. Handle diameter should range from 1 3/8 inches for small hands to 2 1/8 inches for large hands, with an average of 1.75 inches.
- Handles should be covered with smooth, slip-resistant material (plastic or rubber). Dual-handled tools (like shears or pliers) should have a handle length of at least 4 inches and preferably 5 inches. They should have a spring return to maintain an open position, and handles that are almost straight without finger grooves. Handle diameter should be large enough to allow for a small overlap of thumb and fingers.
Guidelines for lifting
- Keep lifts between hand level and shoulder level. Avoid lifts from the floor or over shoulder level.
- Provide handles on containers.
- Redesign loads so they can be lifted close to the body.
- Provide dollies, pallet trucks or utility carts for objects that have to be carried more than a few feet. Provide roller conveyors for bags or boxes of vegetables or chemicals that are handled often. This will reduce the amount of lifting.
- Keep bag or box weight below 50 pounds.
Guidelines for stooped work
- Redesign the job to avoid stooped work - attach long handles to tools; provide stools.
- If stooped work is required, provide employees with other short tasks that require walking or sitting to break up the amount of time spent in a stooped position.
Guidelines for vehicle use
- Reduce whole-body vibration by equipping tractors and other vehicles with suspension seats that have appropriate vibration-damping characteristics.
- Use motor vehicle seats with good seat positioning and lumbar support.
Making changes to improve the ergonomics of farmwork will not only reduce worker injuries, but the changes may also increase worker productivity and morale. Taking the time to discuss this issue and get input on possible improvements also makes employees feel valued because they know their employer is making an effort to create a healthier workplace.
The author is a vegetable and berry specialist with University of Vermont Extension based at the Brattleboro office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.