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Working on the land is backbreaking


Farmers are four times more likely to develop work-related lower back pain than workers in any other profession, according to new research.

University of Sydney researchers led an international team to assess the occupational exposure to ergonomic risk factors of lower back pain.

They found that a major cause of disability worldwide was lower back pain developed from ergonomic exposures at work.

More than 25 per cent of Australians between the ages of 18 and 44 years take 10 or more days off a year with lower back pain, costing the health system annually around $4.8 billion. On any given day, one quarter of Australians suffer back pain, and nearly 80 per cent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives.

Lead researcher Professor Tim Driscoll said that ergonomic factors linked to lower back pain included lifting, forceful movement, awkward positions and vibration, all of which are commonly experienced in farm work.

The people most at risk were those who work in the agricultural sector, and those aged 35 to 65 years,” Professor Driscoll said. “However, low back pain is a problem for people in many occupations.

“Based on published research, agricultural sector workers were almost four times as likely to develop low back pain disability as any other group of workers.”

The researchers also measured disability adjusted life years (DALYs) – the years of life lost due to premature death and years of life lived with disability.

“The calculations showed that, in 2010, there were nearly 22 million DALYs worldwide caused by workplace-related low back pain,” Professor Driscoll said.

“The burden was considerable in all regions, all age groups, and both genders, with 13.5 million DALYs in men and 8.3 million in women.

“The highest rate of DALYs occurred in Asia, Oceania and parts of Africa – places where employment in agriculture is more common, but rates were considerable in all regions.

“Lower back pain arising from ergonomic exposures at work is a major cause of disability worldwide.

“There is a need for improved information on exposure risks, particularly in developing countries, to help better understand the burden,” Professor Driscoll said. “This should lead to better prevention of back pain and injury, as well as decreased lost work time due to back pain.”

The study was published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

The study was undertaken as part of the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study, which assesses ill health and disability arising from all conditions in 187 countries for 1990, 2005, and 2010. The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Kirsty Waterford