University of Saskatchewan researcher studies shoulder pain in farm workers

Angelica Lang is an associate professor at the Canadian Centre for Rural and Agricultural Health at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine. She specializes in upper arm and shoulder movement in a research project focused on farm workers. (submitted photo)

Bryn Levy, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Saskatchewan’s farmers shoulder many burdens, and it leaves an awful lot of them with bad shoulders.

Researcher Angelica Lang wants to get a better understanding of why this happens by getting out into the field to measure how producers move.

Lang specializes in the upper arm and shoulder as an associate professor at the Canadian Centre for Rural and Agricultural Health at the University of Saskatchewan.

For her latest project, small, rectangular sensors are used to gather data from producers at their farms.

Subjects are asked to spend about an hour performing movements identified as difficult in a previous survey of farm workers who reported shoulder pain.

While the survey data serves as a starting point, Lang said working directly with producers provides valuable opportunities to learn more.

“We want to hear what farmers have to say, what’s difficult for them,” she added, noting a handful of sessions conducted last year already catalogued “some really interesting movements.”

These included capturing the data from a farmer as he threw hay bales to the top of a pile, and others restraining livestock using a cattle squeeze, she said.

Lang hopes to find more candidates willing to sign up for her research. Farmers within “a reasonable distance” of Saskatoon can contact her by email, she said, adding she is seeking both those who have existing shoulder pain and those without.

She’s also looking to recruit subjects for a parallel project using a simulator in her Saskatoon lab to study how vibration from operating heavy equipment affects shoulder pain.

Having grown up in Saskatchewan with friends and family connected to farming, Lang said she hopes her work can help producers stay healthy.

“You don’t have to go very far in Saskatchewan to see who this is affecting,” she added.

Jeremy Welter, who farms near Kerrobert, is on the board of directors for the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

He said farm life offers a variety of work that helps him avoid the strains associated with repetitive tasks.

However, he said it’s “incredibly common” for farmers to work when injured, simply because there’s no one else to take over for them.

“The bags of canola need to be carried up the ladder to be dumped in the tank, the wrenches need to be spun, whatever it is,” Welter said.

While research like Lang’s won’t help provide backup workers to small farms, any information that helps farmers keep from getting injured is welcome, along with encouragement to take proper care of injuries that do arise, he added.

He noted newer generations of farmers in particular are embracing healthier lifestyles and are more safety conscious than in the past.

As an example, he said “a growing number” of farmers start trips up ladders by clipping into a fall harness, which would have drawn sideways looks from fellow producers in years past.

“The mentality back then was ‘the way to protect yourself from falling off a bin is don’t fall off a bin,’ ” he added.

While there may be aches and pains at the end of some days, Welter said farming provides a sense of freedom and opportunities to take pride in his work that he wouldn’t trade away.

“It’s one of those things — for me, there’s nothing else in the world like it.”