It’s All in a Day’s Work: What Is Occupational Therapy?

By Ellen Gibson, AgrAbility Specialist

Farmers inMainework hard, with all kinds of machinery, with all kinds of animals, and in all kinds of weather. This is part of the allure of farming, but it can take its toll on a person’s health over time. Farmers are prone to injury because they work hard physically. They bend, stoop, carry heavy items, and are jarred and jostled for long hours on tractors while they plow, harrow, and mow.

Maine AgrAbility is a partnership of theUniversityofMaine Cooperative Extension, Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, andAlphaOneIndependentLivingCenters. The goal of our program is to help farmers inMainekeep farming for the long term. If farmers have issues with pain, injuries, or disabling conditions, the Maine AgrAbility team can help. We go on farms to talk to farmers about the work they do. We look at how they get around and do their work and we look at their work environment. Some questions we seek to answer include: What is making their lives more difficult? Is the tractor seat adjusted correctly? Are the barn doors difficult to open? Is lighting in the barn sufficient? Is feeding done by hand? We then look at how we can address these barriers.

Maine AgrAbility team members cover the entire state ofMaine. One team member is Anne Grygiel. Anne is an Occupational Therapist—often abbreviated as an OT—who works for Alpha One as an Independent Living Specialist. We found there are a lot of people who don’t know what an Occupational Therapist does, so we asked Anne to talk about the work she does.

She said, “I look at a person’s limits and abilities, and figure out how they can continue to do the things that make their lives meaningful. I look at the environment where people live and work. For AgrAbility, that’s the farm—the house, barns, and outbuildings, fields, and equipment. I break down tasks and show people how to lift, carry, and bend safely. I suggest tools that work ergonomically to reduce repetitious tasks and prevent injuries.”

Ergonomics is the science of designing work spaces and tools so that people are comfortable and their work is efficient, their posture is correct, and the equipment they use is safe and easy to use.

“I take a holistic approach and look at the whole person,” said Anne. “I ask them to come up with goals so I know what’s important to them. OTs may specialize in children, seniors, or Veterans, or for that matter, farmers. For farmers, I can do a tractor seating assessment, and recommend new cushioned seats to reduce vibration [which can irritate arthritis or back pain], or rearview mirrors to prevent twisting your back. You may be having trouble with your shoulders, or your knees, or your back. I will look at the chores you do and the tools you use. The solution could be an adjustment in the way you use your equipment. Or it could be a specially adapted tool that makes better use of body mechanics.”

It takes a broad perspective to work with people of all ages who face different barriers doing all kinds of work in all kinds of environments. Anne has a Masters degree in Occupational Therapy. Her coursework included anatomy and physiology, kinesesiology, psychology, sociology, pediatrics, and gerontology—all necessary to understand people, wellness, and health in its broadest interpretation.

If you are a farmer, working with an Occupational Therapist like Anne can help you address those aches and pains—better yet, avoid them in the first place. Give Maine AgrAbility a call if you think a farm assessment would be helpful: (207) 944-1533 or email Assessments are free and your health is priceless. You can also call the Alpha One information and referral service to speak directly with an OT: 1.800.640.7200.