Tractor vibrations can be bad for farmers' backs

June 19, 2017 by Federica Giannelli, University of Saskatchewan
Catherine Trask (right) and Xiaoke Zeng study farmers’ exposure to body vibrations (photo by David Stobbe). Credit: University of Saskatchewan

Researcher Catherine Trask and recent master's graduate Xiaoke Zeng have found that farmers experience prolonged "body shock" when riding horses or driving farming machinery on uneven terrain during an average workday. Whole body vibration is a major risk factor for developing back pain, they say.

"Farmers are often unaware that body from machinery use is a potentially harmful physical hazard," said Trask, U of S Canada Research Chair in Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Health.

Almost 20 per cent of Canadians are affected by back pain, costing the Canadian healthcare system up to $12 million per year. Compared to people in cities, people in rural areas are 30 per cent more likely to experience chronic back pain.

In a 2015 study on 2,600 Saskatchewan farmers, Trask's team reported that almost 60 per cent experience low back pain, apparently a much higher incidence than in the general population. This causes farmers to reduce the amount of work they do daily in 30 per cent of the most severe cases—up to eight times more than in any other profession, a 2001 study on American farmers states.

"Low back disorders really impact farmers' ability to do their jobs, especially lifting or carrying things around," said Trask.

Zeng has also found that the type of vehicle and daily use of multiple machines changes the extent of farmers' exposure to vibration.

She measured vibrations for tractors, grain trucks, pick-up trucks, combines, skid-steer loaders, ATVs, sprayers and swathers. Visiting 21 farms in 2015, she asked about 40 workers to mount special measuring equipment on their machinery seats.

"Skid-steer loaders and all-terrain vehicles showed the highest vibrations," she said. "Combines for harvesting crops and sprayers showed the lowest."

Zeng said farmers on small farms are more exposed to vibration doses daily because they are more likely to own machines with outdated suspension systems.

With a bachelor of science in preventive medicine from China, Zeng joined Trask's team two years ago. Her goal was learning new tools to better promote workers' health, a topic she became passionate about when she studied coal miners' harmful exposure to dust in China.

To limit exposure to vibrations, Trask and Zeng advise farmers to:

  • use newer seats for their vehicles, additional cushion pads and back supports.
  • have hourly breaks for walking and stretching.

In another related preliminary study—the first to measure vibrations for work-related horse riding in Canada, Zeng found that the vibration level was even higher than for skid-steer loaders.

But Zeng said the effects may not be as harmful and more research is needed on the topic, noting that horses are still a common alternative to machines for ranching.

Explore further: Long after 1980s farm crisis, farmers still take own lives at a high rate

Related Stories

Long after 1980s farm crisis, farmers still take own lives at a high rate

June 12, 2017
The number of suicides among farmers and farmworkers in the United States has remained stubbornly high since the end of the 1980s farm crisis, much higher than workers in many other industries, according to a new study from ...

The plight of the modern coalminer

December 17, 2013
Open-pit coalminers face a unique set of occupational hazards. The dozers, dump trucks, and shovels they operate stand five or six stories tall and often sport tires two or three times their height.

Farm injury risks increase with age

November 13, 2012
Older North American farmers work fewer hours than their younger peers but spend more time operating heavy machinery and equipment—raising their risk of serious injury, according to new research from the University of Alberta.

Prolonged repetitive physical workload increases risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis

June 10, 2016
The results of a study presented today at the European League Against Rheumatism Annual Congress (EULAR 2016) showed that prolonged repetitive physical workload increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA). ...

Recommended for you

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Can muesli help against arthritis?

January 15, 2018
It is well known that healthy eating increases a general sense of wellbeing. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered that a fibre-rich diet can have a positive influence ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.