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Good health practices for farm workers

Published on 03 February 2010

Many factors can affect the personal health of farmers and farm workers, including physical well-being, knowing limitations, stress and drugs and alcohol.

Temperature, humidity, soil conditions and terrain affect both human and machine performance. Prepare for the unusual, and expect the unexpected. Mud, rain and bad weather are inevitable. You need proper equipment and know-how to work in these adverse conditions. Use good judgment to recognize unsafe conditions, such as when a slope is too steep to cross safely with a tractor.

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Take work breaks to reduce fatigue and monotony. Eat properly and get sufficient rest. Do not operate equipment when ill or taking medication that might affect your alertness or slow reflex actions. To avoid muscle fatigue, work in a comfortable position and within your limitations. Eating foods high in natural carbohydrates (fruit, breads, etc.) is another excellent way to fight fatigue.

Accidents happen when people are overtired, overheated, cold or stressed. Studies show most accidents happen in late morning from 10 to 11 a.m. and late afternoon from 4 to 5 p.m., just before meals. Take a break every couple hours. Get off the machines, walk around and attempt to get refreshed. No one should feel guilty for taking a break. Refreshed workers mean higher productivity and fewer accidents.

Stay healthy by staying clean. Cleanliness is an important means of preventing the spread of disease. Have areas where you can wash off soil, chemicals and animal waste.

Pay attention to your family’s and employees’ – and your own – emotional health. An upset person is at risk for poor judgment and may take chances.

Exceeding personal limitations is a factor in many farm accidents. Working in extreme heat or cold or attempting jobs beyond your physical capabilities elevates accident or illness risk. Dress right for the weather and the job. Get proper nourishment and adequate rest. Take work breaks to fight fatigue and extend your energy. Stop when you’ve had enough.

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If it will be a struggle to lift or carry something, get help. Be sure you have the necessary competence (strength, skill and staying power) required by the job or activity to do it well and safely. Find the least taxing way to do things. Use motor power rather than muscle power when possible. Plan your work to make maximum use of your available energy.

Consider age and state of health in deciding what and how much you can do safely. Be willing to reassign jobs and activities that can no longer be done safely because of age or health problems. Exercise regularly to improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone and to stay agile.

Staying alcohol-free and drug-free will help to make a safer working environment. Any amount of alcohol in the blood affects human coordination and reflexes. As the amount of alcohol in the blood goes up, performance goes down. High alcohol levels affect judgment. Alcohol is a contributing cause in thousands of fatal accidents each year. Drugs alter the body and mind. A person using drugs may not recognize a dangerous situation.

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can also slow reflexes. These have warnings included on the packaging. Read the warnings on all medications, including over-the-counter ones, and heed them.

Smoking reduces work capacity as much as 10 percent because of carbon monoxide in the smoker’s blood. A smoker becomes short-winded and has reduced work capacity, especially right after smoking, because of their decreased oxygen-carrying capacity.

Farming is a physically and mentally demanding occupation. Add economic uncertainty, unpredictable weather and the usual array of life’s problems that confront most of us, and you’ll find high stress. Strive for a positive mental attitude. Learn to accept what cannot be changed. Take good care of your physical health. A worker who feels good and has energy to think and act clearly will be better able to handle stresses of everyday life and come up with better solutions to problems. PD

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Excerpts from Dawna L. Cyr and Steven B. Johnson, “General Health for Farmers,” Maine Farm Safety Program bulletin #2355 (Orono: University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 2002). www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs/htmpubs/2355.htm

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