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Study links worker back pain with farm machine vibrations

Farm machines such as tractors, combines and skid loaders are known for vibrating at intense levels. The European Union has developed a system for measuring workers' exposure to whole-body vibrations, establishing an "action level" beyond which the vibrations may be detrimental to one's health. New Jersey residents should know that one NIOSH-funded study has reviewed the link between farm machine vibrations and back pain.

University of Iowa researchers attached floor and seat sensors to 112 pieces of farm machinery and measured vibration levels as 55 workers operated them. With the seat sensors, they analyzed how well the seats reduced floor vibrations. They concluded that 56 percent of the machines met the EU's action level for exposure after eight hours of operation and that nearly 30 percent met it after only two hours.

Whole-body vibrations are a risk factor in the development of back pain among agricultural workers. They increase the frequency and sometimes the severity of back pain episodes until these become chronic. Poor posture also contributes to the risk. Combines, researchers found, allowed for the best trunk postures.

Combines also registered half the vibration levels of tractors and heavy utility vehicles. Researchers attribute this to the massive weight of combines and to their high-quality seat suspension systems. These systems reduced up to 50 percent of the vibration levels registered by the floor sensors.

Farm machine operators can maintain the seat suspension, ensuring that it's greased and properly adjusted for body weight, but this will not necessarily prevent the development of back pain. Injured workers may be able to file a workers' compensation claim and be reimbursed for their medical bills and missed wages. Unlike with a personal injury claim, no one's negligence needs to be proven. However, legal counsel could help ensure that a claim is accepted.

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