The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports there were about 2.6 million workers employed in agriculture on farms in 2022. While that may sound like a lot of workers, the industry is facing labor shortages as it works to grow, harvest, pack, and process food for more than 330 million Americans.
Farmworkers face some of the harshest conditions at work dealing with extreme weather, heavy equipment, and exposure to chemicals. In 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported about 46,000 worker compensation claims for the agriculture industry.
It also suspects that the number of injuries in the industry are underreported due to a variety of factors, including language barriers, fear of lost wages/jobs and immigration concerns.
To help raise awareness of and reduce workplace injuries during the busy harvest season, the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety recognizes the third week in September as National Farm Safety and Health Week.
In addition to some of the more obvious safety protocols one would expect to find on a farm, there are other less talked about, but still prevalent injury risks to discuss.
Ergonomics is more than a buzzword or finding a comfortable chair or keyboard. It is an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that they interact most efficiently and safely.
On the farm, this includes items as small as hand tools, as large as tractors, and every tool in between. Each tool, regardless of size, has the power to cause injury with enough exertion and repetition.
Foreseeable to many in the industry, the National Safety Council reports that agriculture workers have some of the most laborious and dangerous jobs on record with higher-than-average workplace injury incidents.
Some of the more common ergonomic stressors in agricultural work:
- Bending/squatting/stooping – one of the most common stressors during harvesting and other activities. It often affects the back and neck according to the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI).
- Repetitive motions – even for workers who sit while handling their farm duties, the CDC reports that repetitive motions such as grasping, sorting, or picking puts stress on extremity joints and can lead to conditions such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel.
- Persistent vibration – equipment, such as tractors, subject workers to a constant vibration which, according to MDPI, has been shown to cause musculoskeletal disorders.
Because it is suspected that so many cases go unreported, this week of recognition should serve as a reminder to companies to review their workers’ work conditions and identify needs and risks. There are some simple steps that can be taken immediately to help relieve some of the stress put on farmworkers by the three common ergonomic stressors above:
- Bending/squatting/stooping – engage in light stretches and exercises before, during and after tasks; provide stools for sitting, stands for field work and long handles for lifting.
- Repetitive motions – engage in light stretches and exercises before, during and after tasks; design workload to be done in shifts; change up tasks to avoid longer-term repetitive motions.
- Persistent vibration – engage in exercises that address the muscles affected by long-term, persistent vibration, whether hand-held or whole body. A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that such exercises led to a definitive reduction in muscle soreness and weakness.
Ergonomics should be a consideration for every position within an organization. Improving the ergonomics within your company is beneficial to both workers and the bottom line.