by Sally Colby
It’s too easy to spot a group of farmers in a crowd: they’re often bent over or stand lopsided to compensate for back pain. Dan Neenan, paramedic director at the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, shares some tips to help farmers maintain healthy backs.
“Nearly 80% of Americans experience back pain at some time in their life,” said Neenan. “The unfortunate thing, once there’s a back injury, it’s a lifetime injury. It’s the second most common cause of lost work time behind the common cold.”
Neenan said both men and women are prone to work-related back pain, with the first episode occurring between ages 20 and 40. The frequency and economic impact of back injuries and disorders in the workforce are expected to increase over the next several decades as the average age of the workforce increases and medical costs rise. One notable side effect of long-term back pain is the tendency to develop symptoms of depression.
“There is no replacement for a healthy back,” said Neenan. “You get one back in life, and protecting the back is one of the most important things a producer can do to stay productive on the farm.”
Back issues arise from various sources on the farm, from livestock handling and prolonged sitting to repetitive motion and forceful movement such as pushing and pulling. “Reaching and lifting objects, lifting heavy objects, working long hours,” said Neenan, listing causes of back pain. “Also slips, trips and falls, and overall physical condition.”
Many work tasks in agriculture require strong core muscles, especially in the lower back. Workers who are paid a piece rate are incentivized to work quickly or skip breaks, which can contribute to back issues.
The severity of symptoms associated with back pain vary from short and mild to more pronounced and incapacitating. Stiffness, pain and inability to move can influence other aspects such as driving. If a person is stiff and has restricted movement, can they turn their head or must they move their entire body to check for traffic?
Farmers should develop and practice good habits such as using three points of contact when mounting or dismounting equipment rather than jumping from equipment. Neenan explained the three points of contact as two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot when dismounting equipment rather than treating the ladder as stairs and walking down forward. Jumping onto the ground, especially onto uneven area, causes undue stress to the spine and may result in severe injury.
Work areas should be well-lit, and workers should wear proper footwear for the job to limit the risk of tripping and falling. Distractions such as cell phones can contribute to back injuries if they cause the user to suddenly twist or turn to grab their phone, or when they place themselves in an awkward position in an attempt to gain reception.
Position work stations and equipment at the proper height to minimize bending or stooping. “Store frequently used parts or tools between waist and shoulder height,” said Neenan. “Place anti-fatigue mats in areas where someone is standing for long periods of time. Use a stool when working close to the ground, and use long-handled tools to increase leverage and reduce the need to bend or reach.”
“In tractors and other equipment that include a seat, the seat should be positioned so controls can be easily reached, and thighs should be parallel to the floor. Seating should also provide adequate back support. “Monitor towing equipment with mirrors and cameras,” said Neenan, “or rotate the seat to look behind you. Use automatic gate openers and quick hitches to reduce the number of times you need to exit the equipment.”
When working with livestock and livestock equipment, request assistance for handling heavy items. Take time and be careful to avoid trips and falls when working around livestock. Use properly designed handling equipment to restrict and restrain animals for safe handling.
Lifting and carrying pose a risk to the back, so recruit help to lighten the load; especially for odd-shaped items or items that may shift. Whenever possible, use hydraulics or pneumatics to lift heavy equipment. For moving heavy items a long distance, use a cart, wheelbarrow, ATV, UTV, skid steer or forklift.
Neenan said the concept of whole body vibration that leads to back problems is receiving more attention. Whole body vibration is defined as ‘mechanical vibrations transmitted to the body through the surface contact such as the seat.’ “Equipment is vibrating, you’re going over uneven ground,” said Neenan. “There’s a lot of movement and it poses substantial risk for musculoskeletal disorders.” New equipment is designed to eliminate vibration, but many farmers use older equipment that doesn’t have such features.
A worker’s daily dose of vibration depends on the magnitude of the vibration and time exposure. “Farmers often use multiple machines each day,” said Neenan. “The amount of time on a machine contributes to the daily dose. Farmers are encouraged to take rest breaks to get up and stretch so they aren’t sitting constantly in the seat.”
The effects of prolonged vibration include increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased respiration, disruption of balance and perception, muscle fatigue and cramping, and low back pain and potential damage to the lower spine. Neenan explained that as a person maintains a seated position for a prolonged period of time, the curvature of the lower back is typically lost unless there’s adequate lumbar support. Lack of support combined with whole body vibration and repeated stress on the lower back is a one way in which whole body vibration can lead to lower back problems.
Neenan urged farmers to adjust seats and shock absorbing suspension for the operator’s weight, and to include the seat in the overall equipment maintenance. If the operator can feel the base plate below the seat, the seat may not be properly adjusted for their weight. When several operators are using the equipment, it’s important to adjust the seat for each operator.
“Seat suspension systems degrade over time from mechanical wear and tear,” said Neenan. “Seat components may need maintenance and/or replacement.”
Other considerations that can ease wear and tear on the back include maintaining proper tire pressure, ensuring the suspension system is intact, use different tractors and equipment for different tasks, reducing speed over rough terrain to eliminate bounce and rotating workers between tasks to limit exposure. “Avoid physically demanding activities for a short time after exiting machinery to allow the back to recover again,” said Neenan. “Get out and stretch before moving on to the next task.”