Researchers seek better way for farm workers to return to work

Sick days are taken for granted in urban society. Although it can be a pain to find a substitute teacher, ignore emails for a day, or miss a weekly meeting, most of us have the flexibility to take it easy for the day.

This cannot be said for the farming community. According to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, farmers take the second fewest sick days in the country. With the potential health and safety risks that farmers are exposed to daily, this seems counter-intuitive.

However, when farm workers are forced to take time off due to sickness or injuries, the current return-to-work process has often been a hardship for both the individual and the farm business.

“Typically, a farm worker is told to return to work when he or she feels 100 percent, but this is not a good financial decision for the worker or the farm operation,” says Bryan Weichelt, project scientist at the National Farm Medicine Center.

Primary care clinicians are treating farm workers and assessing their situation for workers’ compensation. However, clinicians rarely understand the true nature and physicality of farm work.

“There is a gap of knowledge between farmers, farm owners and clinicians,” Wichelt said. “This gap in knowledge can prolong injured workers’ time off and expand the financial burden of worker’s comp premiums.”

To tackle this issue, Matt Keifer, occupational medicine physician and past director of the National Farm Medicine Center, initiated a research and development project that Weichelt administered. The Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center-funded project, Facilitating Return to Work for Injured and Ill Animal Agriculture Workers, created a system for clinicians to use when assessing a farmer’s injury or sickness.

According to Weichelt, a team of physical and occupational therapists collected three years of ergonomic and narrative data to input into this system. The data included interviews of farmers and clinicians along with the weights, heights and distances of farm activities at 32 different farms.

“The system is modeled after the current workers’ compensation form and is designed to replace it in clinical workflows,” Wichelt said. With various tasks on the farm, the system allows injured workers to return to work earlier and perform appropriate tasks. This relieves the strain of workers’ compensation and allows the worker to transition back to work.

The challenge that Weichelt faces is putting the system to work in clinics.

“Right now, it is a working prototype, but it hasn’t crossed into clinical practice quite yet,” Weichelt said.

The NFMC team, along with Matt Keifer, is exploring options to move the system from prototype to commercial use. Although the project focused on the agriculture workforce, Weichelt sees many applications for various fields. This system will provide value for human resources, workers compensation insurance companies, and other large employers like construction companies.

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