The Break Room: Planting Safety Awareness at Home

July 1, 2011
The long, sunny days of summer are an open invitation for gardening, yard work, sports and other outdoor activities – all of which can also equal increased ergonomic risks.

I live in a walkable community that offers easy access to bike trails, hiking paths and kayak rentals – all perks for someone who enjoys the outdoors as I do. But I also live in an apartment building, which means I can’t have a backyard garden. Instead, I make do with a balcony, and lots of pots and containers.

My gardening space might be small, but as I lugged bags of soil out to the balcony and set about planting my tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and basil, I quickly realized it can present some of the same ergonomic challenges as a “regular” garden. Sure, I wasn’t kneeling for hours to pull weeds, or tossing shovel after shovel of dirt, but I was spending a lot of time leaning over my containers, carrying soil, bending to stir the compost and lifting heavy containers. After only an hour’s effort, my muscles were starting to feel the strain.

I knew I wasn’t alone. Once the weather turns warm and inviting – particularly when you live in a place like Cleveland, which this year had what felt like a never-ending winter and no real spring to speak of – it’s tempting to head outside and participate in summer activities full force. But whether it’s gardening, other yard work, sports or something else, we need to pay attention to the ergonomic challenges these at-home activities can present.

Cynthia Roth, founder and CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp., points out that the most common issues associated with ergonomic injuries in the home are related to bending, stooping, kneeling, squatting or lifting – activities that can exasperate or create a back injury. And it’s not just gardening, either: Roth warns that activities ranging from carrying groceries to picking up a child can lead to at-home ergonomic challenges.

“Being aware, paying attention and having a healthy respect for your body is the best way to maintain your good health as you age,” she advises.

Roth offers the following tips to prevent ergonomic issues at home:

  • Don’t plant your entire garden in one day. Pace yourself, take breaks and get up periodically to walk around.
  • Instead of carrying topsoil or fertilizer to your backyard, invest in a wheelbarrow.
  • A larger shovel might make the job go faster, but it also equals more dirt, more weight and an increased chance of injury.
  • Use ergonomic gardening tools that reduce the amount of time you must spend kneeling, reaching or bending over. Wear gloves and kneepads to protect your hands and knees.
  • In your home, place anti-slip material under area rugs and take note of where charging cables are located – these can be common slip, trip or fall hazards.
  • While unloading laundry, elevate the basket to minimize bending.
  • Place grocery bags on a table or chair to avoid having to bend and lift from the floor level.
  • When cooking, pay attention to how your wrists feel, particularly if you were typing on a computer all day.
  • Wear the appropriate level of sunscreen when working outside. Don’t forget to apply some to your ears.

“Pay attention to where your body may be bothering you,” Roth advises. “If you wake up the next day and you feel like you’ve been hit by a car after gardening, then skip a day.

“All of these things are no different from the thought processes you should have at work,” she adds.

As for me, after that first strenuous day working in my balcony garden, I paced myself when planting the rest of my vegetables to fend off any lingering aches or pains. Now, with the hardest work behind me, all I have to do is wait until I can taste that first ripe tomato.

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