Promoting health and productivity through ergonomic practices for farming and gardening

Reduce strain, prevent injuries, and enhance productivity on the farm and in the garden.

for decorative purposes only.
The loppers shown exhibit good ergonomic design including long handles and a proper grip. Photo By: National AgrAbility Project

Every spring as we venture back outside to tend to orchards, fields, and gardens, there is also an opportunity to evaluate processes for safety and efficiency. Early intervention can impact whether tasks lead to injury. Some of the most common symptoms that farm workers report include backaches and pain in the arms, shoulders and hands according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 2001. These symptoms not only affect immediate work but also have implications for long-term productivity and financial viability. However, many strategies exist for analyzing and mitigating such symptoms.

Farm tasks entail strenuous physical labor when compared to many other industries. Attention to ergonomics, which is defined as “the applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort” by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition, has the potential to alleviate aches and pains associated with physical labor such as gripping, lifting, bending, twisting or kneeling. Simple adjustments in tools and processes can foster safer work by promoting better posture and processes and reducing repetition.

Ergonomic tools are comfortable and ideally have a minimal overlap between the forefinger and thumb (no more than 3/8 inches), which helps mitigate risks. A comfortable tool is a safe tool, so be sure you test them out before buying to ensure the design and size are a good fit for your body. Prolonged gripping can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome according to Ferrante 2016. Even modifying handles, such as adding a foam pool noodle trimmed to size, can help alleviate fatigue from extended periods of use. When lifting is necessary, it should ideally be done between hand and shoulder level with the load close to the body, and a straight-backed posture. Smaller loads are safer. Research shows that reducing weight by only 11 pounds (for example from 57 to 46 pounds), and using a style of tote with handles, can reduce pain and symptoms by up to one-fifth of previous levels with only a 2.5% decrease in productivity according to Meyers et al. 2006. Tasks that involve bending or stooping should be evaluated for adjustments such as increasing the length of a tool’s handle or using a stool. Remember to rest and take breaks between tasks and vary your routine to avoid continuous, repetitive and labor-intensive work using the same muscle groups. Stretching, switching sides and getting blood flowing helps to reduce fatigue and give the brain a boost by circulating more oxygenated blood.

Designing an ergonomic workstation involves working at the proper height and minimizing the need for reaching, especially overhead. A work bench should be about hip-height or slightly lower for heavier work. Essential tools should be within about 17 inches of your body, secondary items within about two feet, and all tools should be kept between knee and shoulder height according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 2001. Consider a sit/stand stool to alleviate strain on the lower back from prolonged standing. In addition, using a floor mat alleviates fatigue associated with standing on concrete for extended periods according to AgriSafe Network 2024. While only minor adjustments, these considerations could have a big impact on the way the body feels at the end of a workday.

With deliberate movement and an ergonomically designed workstation, you’re on your way to better time management and reduced fatigue. Additionally, there are tools and assistive technologies that may make tasks even easier. For instance, a scooter wagon is equipped with a seat and small basket, which is convenient for transporting tools around and provides a seat for planting, weeding, or trimming low-growing plants, reducing strain on the knees and preventing prolonged stooping. Battery-operated pruners or shears alleviate repetitive gripping and squeezing, increasing productivity with reduced muscle fatigue and lowering the risk of conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. While these options are a bit pricier, the benefits will likely outweigh the initial cost. Despite their apparent simplicity, considering these suggestions when experiencing fatigue at the end of a workday may reveal opportunities to improve efficiency and have a lasting impact on both health and well-being.

For more complex operations or specific needs, AgrAbility offers technical assistance and recommendations for assistive technologies and improved processes. AgrAbility is a USDA-funded grant program that aims to enhance the quality of life for farmers and agricultural workers with disabilities or limitations. With over 200 clients in 2023, it provides various services such as a site visit with an agricultural engineer to assess limitations and pain points, and opportunities to improve farm operations through the lens of mobility, chronic pain, or other concerns. Site visits and evaluations are provided at no cost, and some projects on commercial farms are funded through support from Easterseals MORC and Michigan Rehabilitation Services. Currently operating in 21 states, Michigan’s AgrAbility project is administered by Michigan State University Extension in partnership with Easterseals MORC. This content serves as a general overview of improved ergonomics in agricultural contexts. For more ideas, specific products, or adjustments explore the Assistive Technology Toolbox on the National AgrAbility Project website, The database is searchable by industry or physical limitation. If you have further questions or ideas, reach out via email ( or phone 1-800-956-4106 to explore how AgrAbility may provide support tailored to your needs.

Did you find this article useful?