by Sally Colby

Many women both live and work on farms, and there’s an increasing population of young women who either farm on their own or work primarily with other women on a farm.

Although most women involved in agriculture are fit and able, farm work presents health and safety risks. The area of ergonomics is especially important for women on farms.

“Ergonomics is the study of how people work in their environment,” said Charlotte Halverson, clinical director of AgriSafe Network. “It’s also defined as designing the job to fit the worker. For too many years it’s been the other way around – we expect the workers to fit whatever mold is out there.”

One issue for women in agriculture is that most are filling more than one role. Women are often the primary caregivers of children or care for aging parents. The same women may also work on the farm part-time and have a job off the farm. These factors increase stress and risk of agricultural injury. Another issue for both men and women is that farm work is often done solo, which can lead to exhaustion and higher risk of accidents.

Halverson said women are put together differently than men, and that’s often the root of the problem. “Typically, women are shorter,” she said. “We have more fat tissue, our shoulders are narrower and our hips are wider. On average, our upper body strength is significantly less than men’s. Our lower body strength is also less.” Halverson added that the lack in overall muscle strength means women have to be smarter about performing certain tasks.

Some musculoskeletal issues are the result of normal aging, and resulting pain can severely hinder an individual’s ability to move freely. With the aging process comes loss of bone, and for women that loss can be more significant. Bone loss eventually results in osteopenia, which is early bone density loss that’s less severe than osteoporosis, and osteoporosis, which causes bone to become weak and brittle.

Trips and falls are a major issue for all who work on the farm. It’s easy to trip on an uneven surface or an extension cord, especially while carrying something. Tools left on the ground present a tripping hazard, and stepping on long-handled tools can result in severe facial injury.

There are plenty of opportunities for falls on a farm. “Low level falls are slips and trips or anything that happens under ten feet,” said Halverson. “These low level falls happen the most frequently and are typically less severe.” Slippery surfaces like those with oil or ice can easily lead to a fall, as can tripping over small animals. High level or elevated falls such as from tall ladders, large machinery, roofs and grain bins don’t happen as often, but are typically more severe.

Women often lift and move heavy objects, sometimes to keep pace with men, sometimes to simply get the job done. “We’re on the farm alone a lot, and we lift things we have no business lifting, but we don’t have anyone else around to help,” said Halverson. “Because we tend to be shorter, we’re reaching overhead a lot more. We get into some awkward working positions and body postures.” It’s easy to compromise a safe, normal musculoskeletal position while working with large, awkward structures, straddling a fence with or without a load or simply moving heavy bales or bags.

Vibration from small power tools poses a risk to women’s smaller hands and arms, and vibration impacts women faster than a static load. “The static load is when you’re hanging on to something and have your arms out in one position for a long time,” Halverson explained. “Your muscles start to ache or even shake. The design and size of tools is inadequate for women in a lot of cases.”

Halverson said hand tools are often the wrong size for women, which results in a stronger grip that puts excess compression on soft tissue in the hands and fingers. This grip can cause numbness and tingling, and can become a chronic problem with continual use of oversized tools. The use of heavy tools such as chip hammers can result in carpal tunnel pain, hand-arm vibration syndrome and Reynaud’s syndrome – interruption of blood flow to the extremities.

Vibration injuries are the underlying cause of many muscular skeletal issues. “Neck vibration can quickly put your cervical spine out of alignment,” said Halverson. “All those nerve paths become trapped, and a static load puts a lot of pressure on tendons, muscles and ligaments, with reduced blood flow to tissue.”

Muscle fatigue is common among those who work in agriculture, leading to reduced sensation and control over the joints, making them more susceptible to injury. Muscle fatigue affects balance, especially when muscles in the trunk and lower extremities are compromised. “When muscles are tired, we have to pay more attention to what we’re doing,” said Halverson. “When we’re so concerned about our balance, we might not pay attention to something else.”

Low back pain and knee and ankle issues are common among those who work in agriculture. The tendency is to compensate for pain by adapting body position, which can impact ergonomic safety. Halverson said the proper standing position while working is with feet at shoulder width, one foot slightly ahead of the other. When making turns with the body, be mindful to turn the feet and arms rather than twisting the back.

With more women involved in heavy farm work, there’s been an increase in shoulder problems such as rotator cuff inflammation and tears. Halverson said over the last 10 years, there’s been a significant jump in the number of women requiring rotator cuff surgery.

Always carry objects, especially heavy objects, close to the body rather than with arms stretched out. Bend the knees, lift with leg muscles and keep the head in a neutral position. If necessary, ask for help to move heavy objects. “Avoid locking the knees,” said Halverson. “Sometimes we lift and straighten the knees, but that will do a lot of damage to the knees and lower leg circulation.”

Medication, both prescription and over the counter, can affect ergonomic safety. “We take pain medication and may not monitor how much and for how long we’re taking it,” said Halverson. “When antidepressant medications are prescribed, it sometimes takes a while to adjust as dosages change – everyone adjusts at a different rate.” Drowsiness is a common side effect of some medications, especially with antihistamines taken for seasonal allergies. Being less than alert leads to tripping, falling and other accidents.

Managers of agricultural operations should provide resources for workers and promote proper lifting and handling techniques. Halverson urges farm owners and managers to examine ergonomics in every area of the farm, from the field to the farm shop, to prevent injuries and preserve ergonomic integrity.