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Promoting Health and Productivity Through Ergonomic Practices for Farming and Gardening

By Samantha Wolfe

Every spring as we venture back outside to tend to orchards, fields, and gardens, there is also an opportunity to evaluate processes for safety and efficiency. Early intervention can impact whether tasks lead to injury. Some of the most common symptoms that farm workers report include backaches and pain in the arms, shoulders and hands according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 2001. These symptoms not only affect immediate work but also have implications for long-term productivity and financial viability. However, many strategies exist for analyzing and mitigating such symptoms.

Farm tasks entail strenuous physical labor when compared to many other industries. Attention to ergonomics, which is defined as “the applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort” by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition, has the potential to alleviate aches and pains associated with physical labor such as gripping, lifting, bending, twisting or kneeling. Simple adjustments in tools and processes can foster safer work by promoting better posture and processes and reducing repetition.

Ergonomic tools are comfortable and ideally have a minimal overlap between the forefinger and thumb (no more than 3/8 inches), which helps mitigate risks. A comfortable tool is a safe tool, so be sure you test them out before buying to ensure the design and size are a good fit for your body. Prolonged gripping can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome according to Ferrante 2016. Even modifying handles, such as adding a foam pool noodle trimmed to size, can help alleviate fatigue from extended periods of use. When lifting is necessary, it should ideally be done between hand and shoulder level with the load close to the body, and a straight-backed posture. Smaller loads are safer. Research shows that reducing weight by only 11 pounds (for example from 57 to 46 pounds), and using a style of tote with handles, can reduce pain and symptoms by up to one-fifth of previous levels with only a 2.5% decrease in productivity according to Meyers et al. 2006. Tasks that involve bending or stooping should be evaluated for adjustments such as increasing the length of a tool’s handle or using a stool. Remember to rest and take breaks between tasks and vary your routine to avoid continuous, repetitive and labor-intensive work using the same muscle groups. Stretching, switching sides and getting blood flowing helps to reduce fatigue and give the brain a boost by circulating more oxygenated blood.

Designing an ergonomic workstation involves working at the proper height and minimizing the need for reaching, especially overhead. A work bench should be about hip-height or slightly lower for heavier work. Essential tools should be within about 17 inches of your body, secondary items within about two feet, and all tools should be kept between knee and shoulder height according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 2001. Consider a sit/stand stool to alleviate strain on the lower back from prolonged standing. In addition, using a floor mat alleviates fatigue associated with standing on concrete for extended periods according to AgriSafe Network 2024. While only minor adjustments, these considerations could have a big impact on the way the body feels at the end of a workday.

With deliberate movement and an ergonomically designed workstation, you’re on your way to better time management and reduced fatigue. Additionally, there are tools and assistive technologies that may make tasks even easier. For instance, a scooter wagon is equipped with a seat and small basket, which is convenient for transporting tools around and provides a seat for planting, weeding, or trimming low-growing plants, reducing strain on the knees and preventing prolonged stooping. Battery-operated pruners or shears alleviate repetitive gripping and squeezing, increasing productivity with reduced muscle fatigue and lowering the risk of conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. While these options are a bit pricier, the benefits will likely outweigh the initial cost. Despite their apparent simplicity, considering these suggestions when experiencing fatigue at the end of a workday may reveal opportunities to improve efficiency and have a lasting impact on both health and well-being.

For more complex operations or specific needs,   offers technical assistance and recommendations for assistive technologies and improved processes. AgrAbility is a USDA-funded grant program that aims to enhance the quality of life for farmers and agricultural workers with disabilities or limitations. With over 200 clients in 2023, it provides various services such as a site visit with an agricultural engineer to assess limitations and pain points, and opportunities to improve farm operations through the lens of mobility, chronic pain, or other concerns. Site visits and evaluations are provided at no cost, and some projects on commercial farms are funded through support from Easterseals MORC and   Services. Currently operating in 21 states, Michigan’s AgrAbility project is administered by Michigan State University Extension in partnership with Easterseals MORC. This content serves as a general overview of improved ergonomics in agricultural contexts. 

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Why Rob Saik is Trying to Build the World’s Most Connected Agriculture Network

Video: Why Rob Saik is Trying to Build the World’s Most Connected Agriculture Network

In a recent interview at the SeedLink Conference in Brandon, Man., Rob Saik, author, speaker, and CEO of AGvisorPRO, took a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the beginnings of his career and what the future holds.

Graduating from the University of Alberta in 1983, Saik embarked on a journey that started in Brandon, Man. “I got a job with Elanko, got a U-Haul truck, threw everything I had into it, drove to the Victoria Inn, and lived there for three months while they tried to find an apartment for me to move into. So I started my career in Brandon,” Saik shared.

Fast forward to the present, Saik has evolved into an accomplished author and speaker, traversing the globe to engage in high-level discussions about the future of agriculture and the critical role it plays in feeding the world. Yet, despite his global presence, he finds himself back in Brandon, addressing a group of seed growers. But why? Saik emphasizes the fundamental importance of seeds, stating, “It all begins with a seed, doesn’t it?”

Reflecting on his own experiences as a farmer, Saik expresses his excitement when a planted seed germinates and evolves into a thriving crop. He underscores the significance of technology and breeding in seed development, recognizing the crucial role they play in ensuring farmers can propagate seeds, grow profitable crops, and contribute to global food security.

Saik delves into the challenges faced by the agricultural community, particularly the rapid pace of technological advancements. He believes that the key lies in connecting farmers to experts swiftly, boosting farmers’ confidence in adopting new technologies, and ensuring the timely implementation of these advancements. According to Saik, this approach is crucial for steering agriculture towards sustainability and profitability.

As Saik works on his upcoming book, tentatively titled prAGmatic, he sheds light on its central theme. “The thesis would be that I want to write a book that takes what the consumer wants, challenges what the consumer believes, and positions that against what the farmers can actually do pragmatically,” he explains. The book aims to bridge the gap between consumer expectations and the realistic capabilities of farmers, promoting sustainable intensification as the necessary path to feed the planet.

Looking ahead to 2024, Saik emphasizes the need for enhanced connectivity within the seed industry. He discusses his platform, AgvisorPro, which is designed to facilitate connections between farmers, experts, and companies in a way that transcends conventional social media platforms. Saik envisions a credible, connected agricultural network that goes beyond the noise of platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter.

In a passionate vision for the future, Saik imagines a tool for teachers that allows them to pose questions from students, answered by verified farmers and ranchers. This, he believes, would provide an authentic and valuable educational resource, connecting classrooms with individuals who truly understand the intricacies of agriculture.