Wear and tear of farm work

Leverenz shares how to limit injury risk on dairies
Paul Leverenz with Easter Seals Wisconsin provided many tips and tricks for personal care on the farm during a presentation on March 13 at the 2015 Wisconsin Ag Women’s Summit in Middleton, Wis. PHOTO BY KRISTIN OLSON
Paul Leverenz with Easter Seals Wisconsin provided many tips and tricks for personal care on the farm during a presentation on March 13 at the 2015 Wisconsin Ag Women’s Summit in Middleton, Wis.
by Kristin Olson

MIDDLETON, Wis. – It’s estimated that 38,740 farmers in Wisconsin are working through some sort of limitation or disability. According to the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every day, about 167 agricultural workers suffer a loss or injury. Of those injuries, 5 percent – or 3,000 – cases result in a permanent impairment. In 2012 alone, 14,000 youth were injured on the farm, and a lot of those were directly correlated to farm work.
Paul Leverenz, vice president of Vocational Services with the Easter Seals Wisconsin FARM Program, addressed this topic and shared ways to significantly reduce this risk during the afternoon breakout sessions on March 13 at the 2015 Wisconsin Ag Women’s Summit in Middleton, Wis.
“Farmers have a great sense of dignity, purpose and self-worth in the work that they do,” Leverenz said. “And much of the activities that they’re involved in, much of the daily focus and the structure in the way you put your life together has to do with completing that work.”
He added that this time of the year, especially when the snow is starting to melt and farmers are thinking about when they can get in the fields, it’s important to think about how to prioritize physical and mental health.
“If you aren’t placing and thinking of yourself as a top priority, then your ability to care for yourself and make smart and rational decisions that don’t put yourself in harm’s way – and don’t end up impacting physical ability in the long-term – really is jeopardized,” he said.
Leverenz shared that the value of work has a highly ethical significance in farming. Ethically, for farmers, if desire and need to do work is driven from a deeper sense and purpose, so often it will rise to a higher level. If work has a higher priority in daily and weekly activities and turns into multiple weeks -for example, being in the middle of planting – that is going to take a priority over everything else. He said it’s amazing that who we are is how we function. If people don’t recognize that and think about how to do things differently, they can’t get to a place where they’ll approach something in a different way.
The question, “Do you have to do it the same way you have always done it?” is one Leverenz presented to the group. Although it seems like a conceptual shift, when working on a farm or when seeing family members complete a task, think about whether or not it’s really the way it has to be done, or if there’s a different way it could be done. An example of this would be centralizing feed storage to reduce trips and increase time.
“The hardest thing for humans to change is human behavior,” Leverenz said. “Our desire to change habits doesn’t necessarily connect with our outcomes. You can have the greatest desire to do it, but our ability to follow through with that can be the most challenging.”
He advised that until committing as an individual or as a farm to make a change in daily work activities, the likelihood that it’s going to change is pretty small. That has to do with how a person personally commits to the process and how that person wants to see that impact on their family and themselves.
There are several examples of some common daily occurrences that sometimes get overlooked. One of those examples is the vibration that happens when machinery is in operation.
“Vibration is one of the most common things that you see on farms,” Leverenz said. “It’s also one of the long-term most debilitating things.”
He described that a person puts his or her hand on a steering wheel, and he or she is holding on to it for periods of time. That vibration isn’t something that person is thinking about in the moment. The long-term effect that that vibration has, however – from carpel tunnel to joint damage – creates a lot of additional stress on joints. There are very simple ways to change that, including wearing anti-vibration gloves, which can reduce vibration dramatically and help long-term impact.
Another great tool Leverenz recommends is an AirHawk floatation cushion. Normally, when a person sits, there are two to three pressure points on the backside; this tends to transfer into the hips and back. The air-filled device, which can be added to any seat, evenly redistributes a person’s weight, giving a person less pressure points.
Many work tasks dairy farmers complete on the farm are done frequently. Leverenz explained that if farmers think about reducing the physical amount of activity that’s causing stress, the place where they can most impact is in the things they’re doing most frequently. A person may not think carrying a 5-gallon bucket or constantly getting in and out of the tractor are things that would be creating a significant amount of stress on the body, but they do. Instead, he suggests making more trips while carrying less water at a time, or using a cart to carry water. Drive through gates can also aid in making less trips in and out of the tractor, putting less stress on the body and saving time.
Other tools mentioned by Leverenz include mirrors and cameras in tractors – which can reduce about 80 percent of the turning a person does to look behind them, relieving back and shoulders – nursery wagons, milker carts for units, dollies and hand trucks, calf carts, milk taxis, PTO jacks, lift gates and speed hitches.
Another eye-opening tip presented by Leverenz is to rethink the time spent sitting in a tractor. Medically, it is recommended that people don’t sit in a seated position for more than 50 minutes; sitting for longer can impact things like blood flow and posture. Consequently, blood clots tend to develop when a person sits for long periods in a piece of equipment that’s full of vibration and bouncing around. Moreover, a person tends to build up operator fatigue and chances for accidents when sitting for long periods of time concentrating, trying to operate a tractor for 10 hours, or even five hours, in a row. Leverenz said, ideally, the best way to prevent that is to get out of the tractor about every hour and walk around it a few times, then get back in and keep on going. Many may be skeptical of doing this, but that change of positioning with a little bit of blood flow enhances your ability to concentrate. Even every few hours can make a difference.
“You’ll feel better and physically stronger at the end of the day if you commit to taking breaks,” Leverenz said.
One thing is certain, no matter which methods or tools work for someone, committing to changing and modifying daily activities to reduce stress is the important part. Always pay attention to what your body is telling you and stop when rest is needed. Because, just as Grandma always said, “A stitch in time saves nine.”