by Katie Navarra

Female farmers face unique production challenges – one of which is that tools aren’t designed for their bodies. During a recent webinar, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Field Specialists Elaina Enzien and Kelly Mcadam offered tips to help women protect their most important tools – their bodies – through ergonomics.

Women are playing an increasing role in agricultural production and their labor is critical to a functioning food system. In New Hampshire, 45.5% of agricultural producers are female, and numbers are increasing across the country. Ergonomics is also important for any worker and understanding how body type impacts strain, fatigue and efficiency.

“Women tend to have more power in their lower bodies compared with men, who have more upper body strength,” Catherine Doheny, a UNH intern, said. “The average female is about five inches shorter than the average male. All of this shows that there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all.’ One size fits all in terms of agricultural tools tends to mean that they were designed based on the size and dimensions of an average male.”

OSHA defines ergonomics as the science of fitting the job to the worker and designing workstations and tools to reduce work-related injuries. “The benefits of ergonomics are enhancing efficiency by increasing quality and productivity while reducing injuries,” explained Doheny. “Something the OSHA definition doesn’t explicitly say is that practicing ergonomics helps you maintain your efficiency throughout the day.”

Modifying the work environment

Farming is labor-intensive work. However, pain shouldn’t be a regular part of a farmer’s job. Musculoskeletal disorders can be reduced, or even eliminated, by considering work-site design, body, mechanics, stress, level of fitness and prior injury. For example, think about having to stretch to step into a truck or tractor.

“If you’re constantly getting up and down off that tractor, you might keep a small stool nearby so that you can get up on that stool and then go to that first level that first step, instead of making that great big step,” Mcadam said. “Aftermarket tractor steps can also be added on and so can grab bars.”

Reaching for things, especially repetitively, can create injury. Ensuring you have supplies and tools within 17 inches of where you’re working eliminates the length of reach, stooping and bending over. For example, when working in a greenhouse, setting up a bench where potting soil sits at waist level cuts out reaching, bending over and crouching down, which can lead to strain.

Carrying heavy loads and making multiple trips can also create strain on the back and arms. If you have animals, you’re hauling water or hay bales. If you’re harvesting, you’re hauling bushels or buckets of vegetables or fruit many times.

“Some solutions could be using a smaller bucket, which could mean more trips, but it’s less heavy,” Mcadam said. “Lift closer to the body instead of extending your arms out and then lifting.”

Hands are the most used body part and repetitive movements are common causes of carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. Pruning tough or woody stems repeatedly means your hand is constantly grasping and pushing down on tough material. Squeezing a nozzle, like when washing a milking parlor, can make your wrists ache. Ignoring signs of fatigue can lead to damage in your hands.

“Providing adequate breaks during repetitive work and alternating with someone else are possible solutions,” Mcadam said. “Also, we don’t often think about if the tool is the right size for our hands, and if it’s made of a smooth material like plastic or rubber – a slip-resistant material – that too can save your hands.”

Working smarter, not harder

Staying healthy at work boils down to physical conditioning. Stretching and getting your muscles supple is important for avoiding injury. Even though farmers regularly lift heavy things, a strength training program protects the body and prepares it for physical labor. Stretching keeps muscles limber.

“When I was actively farming, I thought farming was the gym membership,” Enzien said. “It would behoove you to do more stretching, whether it’s yoga or Pilates, to keep ourselves stretched, nimble and ready to work our muscles.”

Building a toolbox that fits you is key. There are a lot of tools, but they don’t necessarily fit women farmers. Enzien uses her own John Deere Gator as an example. She has to sit all the way on the edge in order to reach the pedals. Even with that adjustment, she drives hunched over, pressing on the gas and brake without any kind of back support.

“I definitely didn’t put a lot of stock into ergonomics myself when I was in my twenties, but learning about this stuff has changed my perspective,” she said. “It’s never too late to get into ergonomics.”

Additional resources are available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National institute for Occupational Safety and Health publications that offer “Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers.”

Enzien stressed the importance of remembering that the tips and advice offered are for educational purposes only. Consulting and working with a medical professional or physical therapist is best.

“They can provide guidance on how to really use this information or deal with injuries or using your body effectively,” she said.