It’s nearly impossible for a worker to pick produce that grows on the ground, such as strawberries, without stooping or squatting. Consider the repetitive nature of the motions required to pick numerous berries in an hour, day, and week and it can quite literally become a pain in the back.
That’s a problem for myriad growers of strawberries and other crops who know that the hours they and their workers spent in these postures lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), but who don’t have the clear ergonomic interventions you find in other industries.
What they also know is that WMSDs from stooping and squatting are costly—both directly and indirectly—through high employee turnover and higher workers compensation premiums. A closer look at the problem might help you see why your clients don’t have a straightforward fix that works in every situation.
Additionally, these issues aren’t limited to the growing side of the business. According to the Food Institute in January 2023, WMSD’s are also one of the leading causes of injury in the food and beverage segment of the manufacturing industry.
Thinking more broadly and using a combination of controls is the key to helping growers reduce worker injuries caused by long periods of stooping and squatting—and this topic should be an important part of your discussion as you help them place or renew their workers compensation risk management program.
No definitive data on how much is too much
While it’s clear that work done in stooped or squatting postures is linked to high incidence of low back disorders (LBDs), there haven’t been many ergonomic studies done on these postures as a primary risk factor of LBDs. Most studies on LBD risk factors focus on manual materials handling and whole-body vibration.
Without a clear picture of how much time spent stooping or squatting causes WMSDs, employers have a hard time developing controls. An Iowa State University study conducted several years ago compared the four common harvesting postures: full kneeling, squatting, stooping, and kneeling on a knee support. They found that squatting and stooping put more strain on the lower back than kneeling, and suggested that workers should alternate between the various postures.
But when workers are paid through a piece rate system and therefore motivated to work at a quick pace, they tend to resort to stooping because it allows greater mobility and demands less energy than the up and down of kneeling and squatting.
Mechanized solutions haven’t solved for problematic postures
So far, there hasn’t been a cotton gin equivalent to revolutionize the way certain types of crops are harvested. Field crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans are heavily mechanized and don’t require large amounts of hand labor, but table food crops like strawberries, lettuce, and blueberries require the very human abilities of sensory perception, judgement, and manual dexterity.
Some strides have been made in improving tools to reduce the need to stoop or squat, such as certain long-handled tools, elevated tables and weeding stands, harvest carts, and blueberry rakes. But these tools tend to be one-off fixes that work for a certain type of crop or only for a smaller operation.
Every now and then new machinery comes along that makes some ergonomic improvements for workers. For example, in strawberry harvesting—one of the most labor-intensive operations in production agriculture—a machine introduced in the early 2000’s reduced human work time by one third or more and altered the mix of motions and postures in farm work. The machine operates as a mobile station for stacking flats of berries after they’re picked, so while it did reduce slip and fall injuries, it did nothing to reduce the stooping and squatting postures of the harvest.
But there’s always hope for new technology. Exoskeletons—a wearable device used to support human strength and mobility (yes, robot arms)—are already being studied for how they could be used in agriculture.
Regulations are as ambiguous as the solution
Currently there’s no national OSHA standard for stooping and squatting other than the general duty clause. California regulators attempted to minimize the need for these postures by requiring that workers stop weeding, thinning, and hot-capping (placing cones over plants) by hand and start using long-handled tools instead.
Regulators left the door open for employers by allowing hand operations to be done when there is “no reasonable alternative.” If an employee sustains injury during hand operations, the employer must justify the exception to Cal/OSHA. Employers using the exception are also required to give an extra five minutes of rest with pay for a total of 15 minutes per 4 hours of work.
Since even regulators seem to acknowledge that there’s no clear, across-the-board fix for reducing WMSDs from stooping and squatting, employers are left to find their own solutions and balance them with productivity and other concerns. If the employer is in a situation where he or she can’t redesign the tools or how the work is done, it comes down to just a few choices:
- Training workers on the importance of strengthening abdominal muscles to prevent back injury.
- Establishing a daily stretching routine at the start of each shift.
- Providing extra rest periods.
- Using job rotation to intersperse tasks that require stooping and squatting with others that require walking or sitting
“Employee buy-in is critical,” advises Donna Stutzman, Technical Underwriting Specialist at Foresight. “While evaluating ways to improve ergonomics, it’s important to include feedback from the workers performing the duties, as they know what makes them ‘hurt.’ Your employees can help identify the most important problem areas based on their working knowledge of the processes.”
Suggest a tailored approach and a specialist partner
Cumulative trauma injuries and WMSDs are tough to control in any industry, but they’re especially challenging in agriculture, where even a small change in an activity such as harvesting affects crew configuration, work pace, pay scheme, and more. Still, employers have a responsibility and a desire to keep their workers healthy and on the job. A tailored approach like the one Foresight offers your clients is the best way to discover what really works for the grower, the crop, the task, and the employee.