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Study shows farm machine vibrations raise risk for back pain

Farm workers in North Carolina and across the U.S. may be in danger of developing back pain as a result of the vibrations caused by farm machinery. In a NIOSH-funded study, researchers from the University of Iowa examined vibration levels for 112 pieces of machinery as they were being used by 55 farmers. The machines included tractors, combines, forklifts, bobcats and ATVs.

Within eight hours of use, 56 percent of the machines caused their operators to experience whole-body vibrations that met the European Union's "action level" for exposure limit. Nearly 30 percent of the machines surpassed the exposure limit in less than two hours of use.

Tractors and heavy utility vehicles showed the highest measurements for vibration whereas combines vibrated only about half as much. Researchers say that the weight and the high quality of the suspension systems make combines less prone to vibration.

The EU's exposure limit is similar to that developed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. OSHA enforces no such standard. Nonetheless, spending hours on farm machinery can increase workers' risk for chronic, severe back pain episodes. Farm workers are advised to keep their machinery's suspension systems greased and to adjust them for body weight. Maintaining good posture is also important.

The back pain that develops from vibrating machinery is one example of an occupational disease and could be covered under workers' compensation law. Those who are injured in this manner may want to seek legal counsel before filing a claim.

While workers' compensation claims do not require proof of anyone's negligence, employers still have the ability to deny them if they show that victims are to blame for their own injuries. A lawyer might be helpful, then, in mounting an appeal. In this state, victims may opt for a compromise settlement agreement.

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