Managing physical challenges in the ag workplace
Agriculture is a way of life – your life. You love what you do and you want to continue for years to come. You started farming when you were younger, when 12-hour days were easily cured by a good night’s sleep and you thought you were invincible.
However, after years of getting up and down off the tractor or truck, picking bushel after bushel of vegetables, moving wheelbarrows of media or pruning fruit trees in the cold of winter, you notice that you are starting to slow down. Your joints and muscles just don’t work as well as they once did. Add to that the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that show that the agricultural sector is still the most dangerous in America, and you worry about traumatic injuries that could affect your mobility.
At the recent Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference, “Managing Your Operation with Physical Challenges” was presented by Annie Klahn of AgrAbility Wisconsin. The National AgrAbility Project (NAP) and state and regional AgrAbility projects are cooperative partnerships between land grant universities and nonprofit disability organizations. All projects report to the USDA and Extension services. Started in 1990, there are currently programs found in 22 states.
AgrAbility of Wisconsin is a partnership between University of Wisconsin Extension and the Easter Seals of Wisconsin Farm Program, one of the most successful projects of its kind in the country. While the program does not provide direct funding or equipment, it acts as a clearing house for additional support services. It helps reduce obstacles in the way of successful ag-related occupations through education and assistance with determining funding sources that can help offset costs of needed adaptive equipment.
The mission statement for Wisconsin AgrAbility emphasizes their vision to “enable a high-quality lifestyle for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities.” They define disability as a barrier to work due to mobility, health, physical or cognitive impairment. Examples of such are noted as arthritis, back problems, hearing or vision impairment, replacement joints, stroke, amputation and spinal cord injuries.
AgrAbility serves anyone ages 18 to 80, as long as they are a farmer or family member. Klahn indicated that the average age of the clients she sees is 64 and that a typical enrollment process takes just 20 minutes. Following enrollment, there is a formal intake with a case management specialist to determine client needs and appropriate resources for referral.
“Often, a rural rehabilitation specialist travels to the farm location to complete an assessment with the farmer regarding disability-related problem areas and makes recommendations,” she said. Farm visits are individualized and take as long as needed with additional follow-up appointments.
Current estimates are that one in five farmers deal with some type of disability. “Some of these can stem from on-farm incidents and some are from off-farm,” Klahn explained. “Most issues stem from repetitive motion that comes along with a lot of farming tasks.”
Klahn stressed safety as one way to avoid disabilities, with easy first steps including simple equipment like eye and ear protection, back braces and antivibration gloves. Often mandated by law, she pointed out that roll-over protection is encouraged on all vehicles.
With farming an occupation that works in extreme outdoor environments, she reiterated the basics of dressing in layers for cold weather and using sun protection and staying hydrated in hot weather. “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” she added. “There’s only inappropriate clothing.”
AgrAbility offers an on-site evaluation and assessment service. They will visit a farm operation and make suggestions and recommendations based on the applicant’s needs and physical work environment. For example, they may suggest welding extra lower steps on tractors or other equipment or installing self-opening gates. Seats can be improved to relieve back strain.
In more severe situations, the program can facilitate getting operator lifts for tractors and modifying tractor controls. Consultation with the applicant’s doctor is recommended during the process so as to not aggravate any physical limitations.
It was in the 1980s that it became apparent that farmers, ag workers and their families were not fully benefiting from advances in the fields of rehabilitation and assistive technology that could enhance the independence of those with disabilities. One resource that evolved and is readily available today is “The Toolbox.” An assistive technology database with over 1,000 products that can assist agricultural workers, assistive product information can be found at agrability.org/toolbox.
The site offers product descriptions, supplier information, photos and videos. One example could be something as simple as a four-wheel cart that can eliminate the stress on the back when moving heavy items around your operation. Power-assisted wheelbarrows or wheelbarrows with lifting straps are other common pieces of equipment that can help on the farm.
With arthritis in the hand a common issue, specially designed wrist bands can be custom fitted that include hooks to help carry buckets. Magnets can also be attached to help hold small metal parts. Orchardists benefit from battery-powered pruning equipment aids that can eliminate painful repetitive motion.
Klahn concluded her presentation by suggesting considering an annual assessment for each farm and individual farmer. Identify what she refers to as the “pinch points” of your operation that need improvement. Make an honest appraisal of your individual needs and wants and determine if there is someone else in your organization that can do some of the more difficult activities that you face. Perhaps your area has custom operators that can be hired for those identified pinch points? Remember to keep your doctor and family in the loop.
AgrAbility knows that working with a disability can be challenging both emotionally and physically. The Badger State program has created a significant impact on Wisconsin agriculture by assisting over 2,500 farmers and farm families who have been able to continue farming or return to the farm worksite through AgrAbility intervention.
Information on the national AgrAbility program with links to individual states can be found at agrability.org. These programs reinforce that agriculture is a way of life that can continue when you are faced with either age-related or unexpected physical limitations.
by Gail March Yerke
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