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Ask Tom: Farmer Ergonomics

September 23, 2013

ask-tom-pictureDear Tom –

With the late spring and incessant rain in June, this season was very stressful but making things worse was back pain on and off all season. Any suggestions?

Aching Andy in Tuxedo

Dear Andy –

You are not alone. Farming is the occupation most associated with disability in females and second most in males. The severity of the disability was second highest for women and fifth highest for men. (Leigh and Fries, 1992)

Solving back pain or any other work-related pain may involve a three part strategy:

  • short term cures,
  • injury prevention by personal preparation, and
  • injury prevention by improving your workplace.


The first step may be body awareness. Even in the rush of harvest, I try to be aware of twinges caused by overworked muscles. Pushing through the pain rarely works out for me. Consider changing postures or positions at the first sign of problems. We hand transplant most of our crops so I have six or eight different postures for transplanting – bending, kneeling, straddling the bed, to the left, to the right, etc. Heading off the problem usually works for me.

stretchingThe next step for me is to remember at the end of the day when my muscles have been stressed. Farming is often an athletic activity and yet few of us warm up before or stretch afterwards. Stretching by Bob Anderson is a great resource. Remembering to stretch before work may be unlikely but I try to always do it at the end of the day. While not very “natural,” Advil often works for me when stretching is not enough.

Physicians seem to lean toward rest and muscle relaxants which work for some people. The sheet of exercises that should go with the prescription may be the most valuable product from that visit to the doctor but those handouts are available on line for free (search on back pain exercises).

While the scientists among us may be skeptical, I found the homeopathic remedy Rhus tox on one occasion when I was stuck in bed with low back pain. (Editor’s note: Consult your own health advisor before following any suggestions in this article.) Massage is effective for many. Both tailgate markets that we attend have massage therapists that offer their services from time to time.


I am impressed with how quickly winter stretching and strengthening exercises work to prepare me for the coming season. This PowerPoint has a good section on strengthening and stretching back muscles. Similar programs exist for ankles, wrists, etc.


Perhaps the best solution is to prevent ergonomic problems in the first place. Consider, for example, smaller harvest containers which are easier to move around. Or a wheel hoe to replace a conventional hoe. The Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits site has dozens of ergonomic solutions to a variety of small farm problems (click vegetable at the bottom). Their harvest cart looks interesting.


Another publication, Simple Solutions: Ergonomics for Farm Workers, overlaps the Health Profits site, but it also puts some of their tools in context and offers guidelines for designing workspaces such as sorting tables.

reach length

Winter is coming so now may be a good time to look at your farm operations that are a pain in the back (or other places) and streamline your operations for next year.

— Tom

Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School

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