Do you lift 50kg fertiliser bags and is it safe? New research shows back injury common on Irish farms
Recent evidence-based research carried out by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) identified a high prevalence of musculoskeletal injury among Irish farmers.
A survey of 600 Irish farmers (100 farmers from each of the six main farm enterprise systems in Ireland) found that 56pc of farmers had experienced a musculoskeletal injury.
The most common types of injury or disorder were related to the back (37pc).
To get a better understanding of the lived experience of back pain/injury among Irish farmers, the HSA conducted detailed interviews with a number of farmers.
These interviews explored how the farmer suffered the injury in the first place, the type of work that they could no longer carry out on the farm, the changes that they had made on the farm due to their back pain/injury, and how they manage their pain on a day-to-day basis.
Following the research HSA published the key risks of back injury on farms and how such injuries they can be prevented.
Risk factors for manual handling on the farm
Farms tend to be a hive of activity. There are always jobs to be done and some tasks require the farmer to engage in manual handling. Examples include lifting a bag of feed or carrying a calf.
It is good for people to be active and dynamic, and a certain level of physical manual work is healthy.
However there are risks associated with manual handling.
Such injuries can have serious consequences for the farmer, reducing his or her mobility and capacity to engage in farming activities.
The main risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders are described in more detail below.
Force refers to the weight of a load that is to be lifted. Lifting a heavy load places excessive demands on the limited motion capabilities of the spine. Overloading the spine can cause permanent damage.
Should you lift fertiliser bags?
An example of a task that results in increased risk on the farm is the handling of 50kg fertiliser bags.
According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, having one person handle a load weight of 50kg represents a serious risk of injury and should be avoided at all times.
Other methods of handling should be considered or the load should be broken down prior to movement.
The risk posed by excessive force is made worse if the person lifting a heavy load is also bending over. Such action increases pressure on the discs in the back.
If a load is bulky or hard to grasp, such as a restless animal, it will be more difficult to hold while lifting and carrying. The holder may adopt an awkward posture, which is tiring and increases the risk of injury.
Sometimes the size of an item, or a shortage of space for movement, results in a load being held away from the body. This results in increased stress on the back.
Our handling capability is reduced significantly the further our hands move away from the trunk of our body during a lifting or carrying task. Holding a load at arm’s length imposes about five times the stress that holding the same load very close to the body would.
Another risk related to awkward posture is repetitive bending and twisting when carrying out a task.
For example, fitting clusters on cows. Bending increases the stress on the lower back because the back muscles have to support the weight of the upper body as well as the weight of the load, which in turn increases the risk of injury.
The weight that we can handle comfortably will decrease as the frequency of handling increases.
Work should be planned in a way that alternates tasks or includes time for breaks from a repetitive activity.
Lack of recovery time
If physical stresses are prolonged, then fatigue will occur. Efforts need to be made to plan or schedule work activities on the farm to reduce fatigue and allow time for recovery during physically demanding work
Other risk factors to consider include:
• excessive carrying distance(greater than 10 metres),
• lifting loads above shoulder height,
• lifting loads with no handles, and
• lifting loads in an area that is difficult to access.
For example, where there are space constraints, uneven or slippery surfaces and/or poor housekeeping practices.
Actions to take to avoid/reduce risk
The range of manual handling activities on the farm is wide. Examples include handling of fertiliser, feed and small animals; carrying buckets for feeding; lifting loads from the back of a trailer to the shed; or lifting netting reels onto a bailer.
Recognition that all manual handling activities are potential workplace hazards on the farm is the first step in managing the risk of back injury on the farm.
Risk-reducing measures to consider before carrying out a manual handling activity on the farm include: reducing load size, using attachments on tractors and other handling aids, improving seating in tractors, improving storage facilities, raising work platforms or benches, fitting wheels to heavy loads, using hitch three-point linkage systems and taking the time to plan each activity.
Planning ahead and taking steps to reduce the risk of injury should make the job easier and less strenuous, as well as safer. The table on the next page lists some useful risk reduction measures.
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