Exploratory Research / Feasibility Studies


The community collaborations project in the Black Dirt region of Orange County, NY builds on a previously established work team. Several years ago, the community engaged in a CBPR project that focused on eye irritation. The fine soil of this region creates excellent growing conditions, however, it also is easily transferred to hands, clothing and transmitted through the air. The project work team successfully developed an intervention consisting of safety glasses, saline solution and educational materials distributed to farmworkers. Subsequent evaluation demonstrated a decrease in eye irritation.

Now, this work team has identified low back pain as the priority concern. Many agricultural tasks can influence musculoskeletal strain and pain. Awkward postures and repetitive movements associated with crop farming can lead to chronic aching muscles and pain in shoulders, backs and wrists. The primary crop grown in this area is dry onions, however, many farms have diversified crops to meet consumer needs and sustain production activity. Lettuce, squash and assorted vegetables are also being grown here. The tasks selected by the work team and its consulting ergonomist as leading causes of back pain are weeding and stacking bagged onions.

Intervention identification, development and testing is underway. Some tools can be used by farmworkers for weeding, but must be small bladed to allow precision near the plant roots to avoid damage to the plant. An interchangeable bladed hoe with several specially designed blades wasbe tested during the 2011 season. There are times when a tool is not feasible and workers must meticulously hand weed row after row of lettuce. For this type of work, a new wearable kneeling pad has been designed to alleviate worker discomfort. Changes to the stacking process in the onion packing houses are challenging, but are being studied and intervention designs have been initiated.

Project Update:
The tools were pilot tested in a field study during the 2011 growing season. Workers tried the tool for an hour during the course of a regular work day. The tools were left with the workers for one to two weeks. After the acclimation period, data were collected by measuring the time it takes to weed a given area (100 feet) by hoe and by hand as well as measure the amount of weeds removed for comparison purposes.

In this pilot study, the length of time to weed 100 feet was similar in both conditions (hand and tool). The modest amount of time (average 13 minutes) to weed the measured area was not sufficient to determine improved efficiency during task. The tool itself needed modifications. The attachment system of the blade to the handle created unwanted weed accumulation on the tool. Several blades were identified as too heavy and not well liked by the workers. Some workers wanted the handle to be shorter. However, the majority of workers who tried the tool wanted to use it again.

In 2012, changes made to the tool included: unobtrusive attachment hardware, holes added to heavy blades to reduce weight and allow for dirt flow through the holes, and the tool handles were shortened by 6 inches on half of the equipment. Field testing was designed as a cross-over study where farms were randomly assigned to intervention or control and then after several weeks, changed to the alternative condition. In this study, participants were again given an acclimation period of at least 2 weeks. Working on the farmer's schedule, participants were asked to weed for 2 hours in the assigned condition and the distance weeded was measured. The data was then analyzed.

At the end of the study, workers were asked their opinion regarding hand weeding versus weeding with the tool. Over 60% responded that the tool is more comfortable and less tiring than hand weeding and 58% prefer to use the tool over hand weeding. Thirty-five percent felt it was faster to weed with the tool and 35% responded that it depended on the kind of plant being weeded. Twenty-nine percent felt weeding by hand was faster. Farm owners were very cooperative in this field trial despite the majority of owners believing that hand weeding is faster and better than weeding with a tool.

Kneeling pads have undergone a major redesign to overcome wear-ability issues. Prior to the tool field trial this past season, several workers were given the opportunity to try out the kneeling pads during early spring planting. The original design used a garden kneeling pad worn in a rip-stop nylon gaiter, pulled over the wearer's pants and shoe, and had adjustable nylon straps and buckles to secure the fit. However, the nylon is slick and frequently slid around when worn. Anthropometric considerations also needed to be considered as leg length and width varied. Additionally, the kneeling pad was bulkier than the average pant leg and intruded in to the plant rows. Worker acceptance was another important variable.

The new design is much smaller and user-friendly. Elastic and Velcro are now used in place of the buckle system, which accommodate many leg widths. The exterior of the kneeling pad is still made of the rip-stop nylon, however the back is made of denim which eliminates the sliding problem. The cushion itself has also changed so that it conforms to the wearer's leg and does not interfere with the plants. The size of the actual kneeling pad has been greatly reduced which increases worker's acceptance to wear. We were able to work with local community members to assemble the simplified version for field testing.