Charlotte Halverson, certified occupational health nurse/specialist, is the clinical director of the AgriSafe Network. She recently noticed that a study from the 1980s looked at physical differences between men and women.
The older study said that women on average are shorter, have more adipose tissue (fat or connective tissue), narrower shoulders, wider hips, and shorter legs and arms than men.
She wondered if there had been significant changes to the data almost 40 years later.
“I went to look, and ‘no’ it really hasn’t changed, because we found the same thing in 2003-06 and on,” Halverson said in a recent AgriSafe Network webinar that focused on women’s ergonomics. “Women have significantly less upper and lower body strength. These numbers haven’t really changed that much.”
What has changed is that safety groups like AgriSafe – formed in 2002 by rural nurses – are helping teach new strategies to improve the health and safety of farmers and ranchers. They are offering a number of webinars on important subjects like farm women’s ergonomics.
Helping provide equipment for women are companies that recognize there is a market in agriculture for women’s tools and work clothing. Halverson mentioned Green Heron Tools of New Tripoli, Penn., and Rosies Workwear for Women. Both companies can be found on the internet.
The owners of Green Heron Tools, with support of the USDA, spent eight months surveying and interviewing women livestock ranchers across the U.S. They talked with women farmers with zero to 50-plus years of experience working with livestock. About 40 percent of survey respondents reported having experienced an injury and/or chronic condition that interfered with the ability to perform daily activities. Of the 40 percent, 86 percent reported the injury was musculoskeletal related, according to Halverson.
Antivibration/antifatigue gloves, flat footwear with soles that grip, and appropriate eye/hearing/respirator protection are all important for women working on farms and in fields. Their gloves need to have good grip and fit well. If gloves are too big or stretched out, that can lead to injuries.
Halverson noted that the placement of levers on tractors and other farm equipment are sometimes difficult to maneuver for those women who have shorter extremities. It may be necessary to practice maneuvering to gain the muscle memory required to use the equipment smoothly.
Women – both teenagers and adults – may also wind up using the smaller tractors that don’t have rollover protection (ROPS) to do feed chores or pull the baler, wagon or hay rack. Retrofitting with ROPS and using a seat belt can help keep daughters, wives, relatives and employees safer when doing these tasks.
“Although it is different in more modern equipment, you are still having to reach and stretch, to reach the equipment, and it takes a lot of concentration to follow all of the things going on in these ‘cockpits,’” Halverson said, adding that a 2001-02 study by Ann Carruth discovered that driving a tractor one day a week increases the risk of non-fatal injuries to the driver.
Halverson reminds all farmers to climb down machinery facing the ladder, and to have two hands and one foot in place while climbing down.
Pregnancy doesn’t stop the work on a farm, but a woman’s center of gravity changes, so it’s important to be aware of that.
Wearing a front or back baby carrier also changes the way a woman or man will walk and hold their back. Without proper planning, parents try to keep their baby/children safe at all costs and that can easily injure someone’s back should an emergency arise.
While young women are often limber with good balance, older women may not realize they’ve lost some of that ability to recover quickly should they lose their balance. Arthritis and loss of balance can sneak up on someone leading to falls that can be very dangerous. Twisting motions over the years (such as repairing fences, closing gates or heavy doors, attaching milkers, or carrying buckets) can lead to chronic injuries. Sitting in a farm office chair studying numbers on the computer is challenging for the spine, the circulatory system, wrists, and eyesight, so it’s essential to get up often and walk around or stretch out.
“We need to protect our muscles and ligaments and tendons,” she said. “As educators, we need to spend more time to not only teach proper lifting and handling techniques, but to review them on a regular basis.”
Exercise and stretching, keeping a water bottle nearby throughout the day, and taking needed breaks are all important for short- and long-term health.
Women who work on farms are often torn between the work they have to do, and their desire to nurture their children and/or family. They often feel pulled in multiple directions and that can easily result in injuries to themselves, others or their children.
Finding friends in various farm groups, the community and from college or FFA can help everyone stay safer. If it becomes too difficult to keep the livestock/animals fed, if equipment is used that is not safe, or if tasks are beyond one’s ability, it’s time to recognize those challenges and talk with someone who can help. Hopefully, couples work together to keep everyone safe.
“We want to work smarter, not harder,” Halverson said. “We hear it all the time…working at cultivating a culture of safety and doing that through self-awareness…It doesn’t hurt to observe and chat and visit and research and see what other folks are doing.”
For more information, visit agrisafe.org.