Getting 'Back' on the Farm or Ranch

Sunday, April 1, 2018

By Sharry Nielsen

Back pain for farmers and ranchers is almost a given, often a topic of conversation at coffee or lunch.  In a program survey done in central Nebraska in 2012, 87-89% of ag producers asked reported some back pain, from occasional to severe.

What are the reasons?  Why are back problems so widespread among ag producers?

  • Farmers and ranchers deal with heavy loads on a regular basis, handling everything from seed, feed and chemicals to machine parts. 
  • They operate machinery that vibrates the whole body, both regularly and with sudden jolts caused by rough ground, obstacles and the work itself. 
  • Bending, stooping, reaching and twisting to get specific jobs done are a part of the job, and the repetition of tasks aggravates the problem. 
  • Slips, trips and falls, which account for nearly half the injuries on farms and ranches may mean back injury. 

But there are some things you can do to prevent or manage back pain.  Begin by using proper posture and body mechanics during everyday activities to alleviate pain.

  •  If standing for long periods of time, use a relaxed posture, keeping your head and trunk upright.
  • Move close to work area to reduce the need to lean forward. 
  • Use anti-fatigue insoles or matting in shops.
  • Vary your body position often to keep repetition to a minimum.
  • Limit standing time or walking on uneven ground

For those hours of field work, look for ergonomically-designed tractor seats to reduce the stress on your back.  On newer tractors and machinery these will be standard, but older tractors can be retrofitted with similar seats.  Use proper mounts and dismounts; avoid jumping from a vehicle, ladder or animal.  Wide angle mirrors and swivel seats allow you to monitor what is being done without the twisting and turning.

Manual lifting can wreak havoc on the back – there is no entirely safe way to lift and move heavy or awkward items.  When possible, use a mechanical aid for lifting, such as a hoist or forklift.  Learn proper lifting, such as using the leg muscles instead of the back and keeping the load close. 

A man lifting a hay bale with proper lifting techniques

Lifting overhead presents its own risks for injury and continued back pain, so find alternatives for manually lifting above shoulder height.  Two backs are better than one – get help from one or more others to lift heavy objects.

Support, stretching, and exercise can help manage pain, although anyone with back problems should see their health care professional for any treatment or relief specific to your back pain.

For more information on preventing or managing back pain, see the new publication from the National AgrAbility Project, “Back on the Farm, Back in the Saddle”.  Go to the web site for more resources, or check the National Arthritis Foundation web site.  The Nebraska AgrAbility web site, has links to brochures on stretching for farmers/ranchers and on proper lifting.

Arthritis, Back Problems, Ergonomic Tools