Farming is hard work, but there are ways to prevent occupational disabilities

Did you know that jobs in food and agriculture account for 22 percent of Michigan’s employment?

Agriculture pumps more than $10.2 billion annually to the state’s economy. More than 300 commodities are produced in the Great Lakes state on a commercial basis. Michigan also leads nation in production of tart cherries, blueberries, dry beans, floriculture products (Easter lilies, geraniums, petunias, etc.) and cucumbers for pickles.

Some 923,000 workers statewide grow and harvest field crops, work at landscape nurseries, raise livestock, run dairies and raise poultry.

Several of the state’s largest farming operations are in Ottawa and Allegan counties, and many lakeshore area residents suffer from farming-related ailments and disabilities.

Agriculture is labor intensive and, sometimes, dangerous. Many jobs require repetitive motions that can cause inflammation and musculoskeletal problems.

Fortunately, ergonomics in agriculture is now in the spotlight, said Fadi Fathallah, a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California at Davis.

“Ergonomics uses the knowledge of human abilities and limitations (in designing work spaces, equipment and tasks),” Fathallah said. “The goal is to fit the job to the person, not the person to the job.”

Stooped postures, heavy lifting, vibration from heavy equipment, excessive noise and rapid hand work from cutting and clipping can take a toll on bodies over time, Fathallah said.

He described interventions – some simple, others complex – during a recent webinar.

Long handles and low-tech container lifters can cut bending and lifting injuries by half, Fathallah said.

Power clippers reduce the risk that landscape nursery workers will develop wrist problems. Few farmworkers who need carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists ever return to work, he said.

Many growers now require workers who do sorting tasks, like packing and grading, to wear aprons constructed with a special foam that muffles vibrations from the conveyer belt they inevitably lean against.

Wheeled prone working platforms pulled slowly forward through the field by a tractor as workers pick produce below relieve the neck and back pain that accompanies long intervals of stooped picking.

Adjustable harvesting platforms eliminate the need for fruit pickers to lift and lower heavy packing boxes. Unfortunately, many mature orchards were not planted with sufficient space around fruit trees to use these platforms, Fathallah said.

A machine has also been developed to eliminate the need for hand weeding. The machine is equipped with a global positioning system that defines each plant in the crop. Most everything else gets yanked.

One of the most successful inventions for avoiding farm-related disabilities, Fathallah said, are five-minute breaks taken hourly.

Short, frequent breaks help farmworkers’ bodies recover from physiological stresses better than one lunch hour, or half-hour in the middle of the day, he said.