sealPurdue News

May 23, 1997

Use your head before you use your back on the farm

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Work that frequently involves heavy lifting, prolonged sitting on farm equipment, and awkward work positions puts farmers at high risk for developing back problems. But according to Michelle Gruver, rehabilitation engineer at Purdue University's Breaking New Ground Resource Center, farmers can make adjustments that will protect their backs on the job.

Gruver said most back impairments develop slowly over time, and people often don't know what caused them. Severity ranges from acute, which is severe but short lived, to chronic, long-lasting pain. She defines a back impairment as any injury, disease or problem that causes pain to or limits normal use of the back.

Back pain is the second most common medical complaint and second leading cause of absenteeism from work, according to spinenet, a World Wide Web site ( that compiles back statistics. It cites work-related back injuries as the nation's No. 1 occupational hazard, causing 100 million lost days of work per year. Gruver said 48 percent of worker compensation claims filed by agricultural workers in 1985 and 1986 related to back injury.

Dennis Herr of Kendallville, Ind., is a case in point. Herr runs the family grain and dairy farm with his brother, sister-in-law, father and mother. The 52-year-old has been involved in farming all his life; he began noticing stiffness in his back as a 14- or 15-year-old, when he shoveled corn from a bin.

"As a kid, I thought the harder you worked, the stronger you got," Herr said. "Well, that's true. But it also wears your body out."

Years of hurting his back, letting it heal, and starting the cycle over finally led to what Herr calls a "blowout" in his lower back.

"It'd been hurting for about three years, and I was to the point where I was walking bent over," he said. "One day I was just walking up a hill and my back blew out."

Surgery was required to remove portions of ruptured disc that were applying pressure to spinal nerves. After three months of downtime and physical therapy, Herr is back on his feet, but he's been diagnosed with two more bulging discs.

Because of his back impairment, Herr said he has to be very selective about the work he does around the farm. If he starts to feel pain, he evaluates the work he's been doing to determine the cause, then eliminates that job from his schedule. He said it's required hiring help, lifting nothing heavier than 20 pounds, lifting with leg muscles instead of his back, and using equipment to lift and carry.

For example, the Herrs use a skid-steer loader to carry feed to the cattle instead of carrying buckets. Rubber mats and a sunken work area in the dairy parlor take some pressure off the back, as well. A new, mechanized square hay baling system limits the usual lifting, bending and twisting required of that job.

Gruver said: "Many people don't think about their back until the pain starts, but there are several strategies that can be used to avoid back impairment."

She suggested consulting a professional, such as the family doctor or a physical therapist, to learn conditioning exercises and new techniques for doing work that might injure the back. For farmers, such work might include lifting a bale of hay or moving bulky equipment, handling seed or fertilizer bags, and twisting the upper body while lifting. Prolonged driving of trucks, tractors and other farm equipment that causes whole-body vibration also can be a risk factor, as can slips and falls associated with adverse working conditions. Other suggestions from Gruver are:

For more information, call the Breaking New Ground Resource Center toll-free at (800) 825-4264 and ask for the free article titled "Farming With a Back Impairment."

The Breaking New Ground Resource Center in Purdue's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering has become internationally recognized as a source for information and resources on rehabilitation technology for persons working in agriculture. It maintains a Web site at

Source: Michelle Gruver, (765) 494-5088; e-mail,
Writer: Andrea McCann, (765) 494-8406;
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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