GROWING


Farmwork Ergonomics

By Vern Grubinger


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.

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

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.

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

Guidelines for lifting

Guidelines for stooped work

Guidelines for vehicle use

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 vernon.grubinger@uvm.edu.