What to consider for women's ergonomic safety on the farm

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Women are at risk of serious injuries in the ag industry.

With women now making up 36% of total producers in the US, it's important to consider extra precautions and prevention strategies to keep women safe in an industry that was largely built for men.

Charlotte Halverson, a registered nurse and clinical director for the AgriSafe Network, says many parts of the ag industry are more suited for men than women because of differences in strength, stature and other anatomical and physiological factors, leading to a higher rate of injury among women. She presented a webinar on women's safety Dec. 1.

"The challenge continues to be access to protective equipment that meets the needs of women," Halverson said. "Still, most of the equipment made, whether that be machinery, whether that be fancy vehicles or whether that be hand tools, are designed for men."

Women account for one-third of farm ownership, management and work on farms now, Halverson said, but their needs are not always met. According to a study from Green Heron Tools, 40% of surveyed women working on a farm reported an injury or chronic condition – and of those women, 86% said they suffer from a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), which Halverson said is a very commonly underreported side effect of ag work.

Halverson said many working factors contribute to MSDs, including working alone, long shifts, age, arthritis, osteoporosis and poor hearing and vision. Even young people can suffer from these conditions, Halverson said, and people younger than 24 may not have a fully developed brain, leading them to take more risks.

"Age impacts those younger workers as well. We know that in young people, our brain doesn't fully mature until 22-24 years old," Halverson said. "The ability to reason and be cognizant of what some of the dangers and some of the issues are may not always be there."

Halverson also said osteoporosis and osteopenia (which occurs before osteoporosis sets in) is a much higher risk for women than men due to bone density decreasing with age. She recommended female ag workers get a bone density test done with their doctor on a regular basis.

Women working on the farm right now may also be working "triple duty" because of their childcare responsibilities, farm work and off-the-farm jobs, Halverson said. The pandemic has only made that more clear as money has tightened for some families and children are being kept home, maybe even homeschooled, to avoid spreading COVID-19. 

Charlotte Halverson is the clinical director for the AgriSafe Network.

Zoonotic infections are also a concern. Halverson explained that research is being done to determine the risk faced by pregnant women and women who plan on becoming pregnant when around sick animals. The infections may affect fertility and other pregnancy factors, she said.

"This is an issue for everybody, but we are very concerned about some of our younger women of childbearing age and how some of these zoonotic infections can impact their ability to carry a pregnancy or ability to conceive," Halverson said.

Women should also have their hair tied up or in a hat to avoid machine entanglement or other farm equipment or livestock pulling on it, Halverson said. Women are also at risk when carrying heavy objects and working on machinery that may be too big for them, since women are smaller than men on average, she said, adding that women often have shorter arms and legs and narrower shoulders, which can lead to issues with reaching and fitting into equipment seating.

Because of that, Halverson said women often use smaller, older equipment on the farm that may not be retrofitted for modern safety guidelines, like tractors without rollover protection. Driving a tractor once a week on average increases the risk of a nonfatal injury for women, she said.

Halverson said women also have small hands that may not be able to properly grip or use farm tools, especially those that vibrate, if they are using them for long periods of time. While vibrations may not seem dangerous, Halverson said, if they occur regularly, they can cause a host of serious issues in the body – the hands may suffer from numbness and tingling due to carpel tunnel, and at the base of the neck, the spine may become misaligned. Blood circulation can also be reduced.

Continual vibration from equipment and tools on the farm can have serious long-term effects on the body.

"Fifty percent of the exposed workers (to long periods of vibration) will develop symptoms ... like blanching the fingers, spasms, numbness, losing some of your dexterity, and if you're working out in the cold, that can add to it and make it even worse," Halverson said. "Those are some of the things that we worry about particularly with women because sometimes our hands are smaller and our gloves aren't fitting just the way they should."

Body mass index is an important factor in women's balance too, Halverson said. Women gain more fat in their belly and hips than men do, which can shift the line of gravity forward, causing the back muscles to work harder and tire out faster. Pregnant women especially experience this change. Halverson said it's important to practice good posture and balance to avoid falls and trips.

Halverson encouraged women to try pilates or yoga as a way to take care of their body after putting the stress of farm work on it. Anti-vibration gloves are also a new product on the market, which Halverson said is a good purchase for women, especially pregnant women whose wrists build up with fluid, making them more susceptible to injury.

"Oftentimes you will see pregnant women with their carpal tunnel gloves on to keep their wrists straightened out. Their center of gravity obviously changes," Halverson said. "Your vision of where your feet are can change gait, and flexibility can be affected. ... That fluid buildup around your ankles can impact your balance and your ability to walk well. We are very concerned about these issues with our young women."