Home gardeners know the pains that arise as they tackle gardening chores on weekends and evenings, but imagine if your job kept you in the field all day, day in and day out. That’s the case for California’s one million strong agricultural labor force, working up to 12 hours per day, six days per week, and the resulting back pain is reaching epidemic proportions, according to some.
In one county, clinics handle more than 3,000 cases of back pain among farm workers each year, making it the number one diagnosis during harvest time. The conditions range from relatively benign cases of strained muscles to torn and ruptured discs in which the damage is permanent.
Like many industries, there’s a strong culture of “we’ve always done it this way,” and California’s agricultural industry hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years. There’s a tendency to view high injury rates as the nature of the job. But that’s starting to change.
Researchers at the Agricultural Ergonomics Research Center at UC Davis are investigating various ways to reduce the load on the low back during harvesting tasks. The ergonomics solutions either already in practice or under review, in California and elsewhere, range from engineering controls like a smaller, lighter tub for grape harvesting, raising the plant beds so that workers bend less, experimenting with lifting aid devices that distribute weight from the lower back to other parts of the body, new harvesting machines that allow workers to lie down while picking, and another that moves alongside the harvester that eliminates the need to carry the loaded tubs to a stationary collecting area.
There are also administrative changes such as mandating more rest time and a law that bans hand weeding.
No industry change comes without some cost, however, and that’s why ergonomic related changes must be well thought out and cost justified. Often, ergonomics related improvements deliver productivity and quality increases that quickly pay back any up-front financial investment – not to mention the harder to quantify reductions in future injury related costs, increases in worker health and motivation, reduced turnover, etc.
However, some potential changes need to be carefully reviewed and tested before making what could be major infrastructure or equipment changes.
For example, some critics suggest that some of the innovations may just shift pain around, moving it from the back during stoop work to the neck when lying down, or the knees when kneeling, and so on.
And not all field workers support innovations either, because there’s a real possibility the improvements will also reduce the need for special skills, or eliminate their jobs all together.
Sources: Santa Cruz Sentinel, The Ergonomics Report™, Ergonomics Today™