A Farmer should Not Be In Regular Pain! A look at the risk of Musculoskeletal Disorders and how the science of ergonomics can help

Author: Teagan Moran, Small Farms Program, Oregon State University Extension Service

Publish Date: Fall 2018

I was inspired to write this article after having an emotional conversation with a very young farmer (not even 30 years old) who had to leave their job and farming all together due to disabling back pain associated with a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). They had worked a position that required long repetitive tasks, at the time they had not known about the danger of (MSDs) associated with their job or the ergonomic practices that could have prevented them.

This farmer is not alone; work related (MSDs) are the leading cause of disability across industries, and farmers are at particularly high risk (WalkerBone and Palmer, 2002). MSDs are injuries and disorders that affect the human body’s movement or musculoskeletal system (i.e. muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs, blood vessels, etc.). MSDs are caused by prolonged exposure to physical stresses such as repetition, forceful exertions, kneeling, lifting, squatting, bending, vibrations and twisting (NIOSH, 1997). When a worker is exposed to these physical stresses, they begin to fatigue. When fatigue continues past the body’s ability to recover, then they develop a musculoskeletal imbalance. If that imbalance continues and the body still doesn’t recover, then the musculoskeletal disorder develops.

Now, you may be thinking - the physical stresses listed sound just like a job description for most farm labor. Even as I sit to write this I am nursing a tweaked shoulder from a particularly vigorous weed whacking venture on my farm. The good news, as reported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is that MSDs are preventable, there are tangible steps we can take to reduce the risk of MSDs on the farm and ergonomics plays a leading role.

What is ergonomics?

You may have heard about an ergonomic car seat or keyboard, but there is more to it than the design of products. Ergonomics is an applied science that aims to learn about human abilities and limitations. It applies those ergonomic principles to design workplaces, equipment, and systems so that they fit the people who use them. Ergonomics aims to reduce stress on the body while increasing efficiency and comfort in the workplace. Specialists in the science of ergonomics have demonstrated that there are simple and cost effective solutions that can have significant impact on the health of farm workers overall (Sestos, Module VIII).

Why should we care?

Pain should not be a regular part of a farmer’s job. The impact of MSDs (which can develop slowly over time) can result in permanent or long-term disability, lifelong pain, and significant loss of income. For small farms where labor may be on the shoulders of only one or two people – this can destroy the farm business.

What is stopping us?

It is important to acknowledge the barriers to implementing ergonomic strategies on farms. Some barriers are related to the belief that the pain is just ‘part and parcel’ of the job. Sometimes there is even pride in those sore muscles at the end of the day. This attitude is a dangerous one, because it tends to gloss over the seriousness of MSDs and deprioritizes the solutions that could make farm work safer (Baron, et al. 2001). Many farming practices have been passed down through generations, and changing habits related to ‘how things get done’ is difficult or is viewed as an inconvenience. Additionally, even acknowledging the presence of injury and symptoms can be a barrier. Symptoms are often ignored until they interfere with one’s ability to perform their job and by then the MSD has taken root. As a farmer myself, I must admit that I often take better care of my pruners than my own hands. When profit margins are slim, speed can take precedence over safety - I have been guilty of feeling shame when I slow down, even if it is to protect my body. To counter some of these barriers we need to talk about the seriousness, cumulative impact, and causes of MSDs and that farmer focused ergonomics offer one way towards safer farm work. The cost associated with these changes should be viewed in relation to what can be saved in the long run, the farmer’s health and farm viability.

What can be done?

Small changes on a daily basis can have a big impact. Multidisciplinary teams of researchers and extension staff across the country have collaborated to develop intervention and prevention programs with ergonomic approaches. More research is needed as the science of ergonomics is actually quite young, but we now have some practical alternatives and affordable strategies to counter the ‘back breaking’ norm. For a comprehensive list of these strategies including the guidelines shared below check out Simple Solutions for Farm Workers published by the U.S. Department of Human Health – Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevention Strategies:

Modifying tasks, changing routines, and finding the right equipment/tool (or modifying a tool) for the job can all help prevent MSDs. If tools and work stations are ergonomically designed – meaning designed so that they meet the physical capabilities of the worker, then injuries are prevented as a natural result of less repetition, improved posture and reducing the force used by the body.
  • Posture has a huge impact. Limit or eliminate the need for stooped work: Alternate with one knee, Redesign the job to avoid if possible, Break up the job with other tasks, Move into opposite positions. There is strategy of ‘Reversal’ – where you reverse the position you are in – even if just for 10 seconds to allow your body to recover and reset. So if you are stooped over then you stand up and stretch back to reverse the action.
  • Reduce long exposure to vibration or the need to be in one position. To do so prioritize task rotation as much as possible. Standing causes legs to swell (more than walking), changing from standing to walking and back again is recommended.
  • Allow a tool to do the work and make sure the tool fits the body. What is a good fit?
    • A tool that supports good posture, such as one with a long enough handle so that you limit the need to stoop.
    • If a tool requires force, the user should be able to grip all the way around the handle having thumb and forefinger overlap. Handle diameter should range from 1-3/8” for small hands to 2-1/8” for large hands, with an average of 1-3/4”.
    • Well-designed tools will have handles 4” or 5” long, slip resistant material on the handle and a spring to keep the tool open (reducing the need for additional force).
    • For standing work there is a recommended work station height (wash stations, pack tables, etc) for men this is typically 40” to 43” for light work and 36” to 39” for heavy work; for women this is typically 37” to 39” for light work and 33” to35” for heavy work.
  • Consider tires and suspension on tractors/trucks to limit vibrations and impact on the body. Invest in motor vehicle seats with good seat positioning and lumbar support.
  • Limit twisting and reaching. For example; be aware of where harvest containers are in relation to the body. Items should be within 17 inches of the worker’s body. Avoid placing needed tools or other items above shoulder height.
  • When harvesting from or pruning trees, adequate ladder heights have a big impact.
  • Take short breaks every 30 minutes and sit down when possible; sitting down, even for short periods of time reduces the strain on lower back and legs.
  • 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.

For more details on these strategies, MSDS, and on farm system design recommendations see:

* Simple Solutions for Farm Workers (NIOSH, Center for Disease Control and Prevention 2001

* Preventing Musculoskeletal Disorders (OSHA Ergonomics)

* Easy Ergonomics: A Guide to Selecting NonPowered Hand Tools (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)


U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, Public Health Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers (2001). cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2001-111/

Chapman, Larry, Meyers, James M. (2001). Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Injuries in Agriculture. http://nasdonline. org/1830/d001771/ergonomics-and-musculoskeletalinjuries-in-agriculture-recognizing-and.html

NIOSH. 1997. Musculoskeletal disorders and workplace factors. A critical review of epidemiologic evidence for work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, upper extremity, and low back. Publication no. 97-141. https:// www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/97-141/default.html

Sestos (Partners in Agricultural Health, Module VIII) Chronic Musculoskeletal Disorders in Agriculture for Partners in Agricultural Health. http://worh.org/files/ AgHealth/musc.pdf

Walker-Bone K, Palmer KT. 2002. Musculoskeletal disorders in farmers and farm workers. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10984497_Musculoskeletal_disord... farmers_and_farm_workers