The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the agricultural sector is still the most dangerous in America, so you may sometimes be concerned about traumatic injuries that could affect your mobility. As a farmer, many of those injuries can come from years of repetitive motions or those that cause you to exert yourself beyond your normal capabilities.
AgrAbility is here to help. The National AgrAbility Project and state and regional AgrAbility projects want to assist farmers adjust to disabling conditions – from spinal cord injuries to stroke to arthritis – so they can keep working and the farm can keep producing, through modifications to equipment, facilities and daily tasks.
Started in 1990, there are currently AgrAbility programs found in 22 states aiding those ages 18 – 80 who want to keep farming despite some curveballs life may throw them.
Presenting “Easing the Ouch in Repetitive Farm Work” at the most recent Great Lakes Expo were Andrea Garza, COTA (Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant), and Ned Stoller, ATP (Assistive Technology Professional), with Michigan AgrAbility.
Garza talked about all the different services and tool innovations AgrAbility offers. The services can all be scheduled to take place on the farm, so there’s no need to take more time off than necessary for a consultation. One of the most important things to start with is a joint pain screening.
“The screening consists of testing the range of motion of each joint (looking for limitations or pain),” Garza said. The knees and hips are often the biggest areas of concern, but wrists, fingers and elbows should be looked at too.
AgrAbility visits are also about “educating the worker on osteoarthritis, ergonomic tips, stretching, rest techniques and hot/cold treatments,” Garza continued. “Sometimes we’ll find a more in-depth evaluation may be needed.”
If that’s true, physical (athletic) therapy could be considered. It offers recommendations of how tasks could be completed differently, through mixing up positioning and posture. Occupational therapy is a little different; it involves manual therapy, kinesiotaping, stretching/exercises, strengthening certain muscle groups, etc.
“Physical therapy is about getting regular motion back; occupational therapy is helping to fix everything that was affected by the lack of function,” Stoller explained.
If therapy isn’t enough, AgrAbility can also suggest different or modified tools to make those repetitive tasks – such as bending and picking – slightly less onerous. Cost is always a consideration, however.
“Some farmers may not want to pay for adaptations/assistive technology for workers. That’s okay,” Garza said. “Some things are small: gloves to ease vibration, kinesiotape, anti-fatigue mats, compression socks, installing extra steps, seat cushions, more handles.”
Offering up some no-nonsense tips to ease strenuous farm tasks was Stoller. The simplest thing to do is job rotation. Switching between different tasks means different muscle groups will be activated.
If tasks are repetitive, only use 15% of your maximum strength, otherwise they can lead to injury or illness. Be mindful of your posture.
“Take frequent breaks and alternate sides,” Stoller said. “And remember that taking a break doesn’t mean quit working – just switch up what you do. Slow down. Switch sides. If you can take a break, five to 10 minutes each hour is best.”
Other commonsense tips include staying hydrated; eating different food groups for proper nutrition; wearing properly fitted PPE; and using sun protection (sunscreen, hats and long-sleeved shirts).
Additionally, whether a farm manager or a farmworker, know your region’s labor laws and report all injuries. Use the health education tools offered by your healthcare provider, Cooperative Extension or AgrAbility. And to make sure everyone stays safe, if you see or feel something that seems off, speak up.
“It’s about the mindset. How long do I want to do this?” Stoller said. “Is the task something I do once in a while or will I cause permanent damage if I continue to do this?”
He added that it’s always easier to use what someone else has invented instead of reinventing the wheel. That’s true for both the methods for completing a task and the tools used to finish what needs to get done.
Interested in seeing how AgrAbility can make your farm work less painful? Check out agrability.org.
by Courtney Llewellyn