Thursday, 22 May 2014 00:00

Jobs that hurt: Doing the same tasks at work gets old

Written by Amanda Marsh
Cody Baskett helps Pablo load tobacco leaves. Cody Baskett helps Pablo load tobacco leaves. Amanda Marsh

Gripping the wooden handle of a shovel, a young man stiffens his arm muscles to force the metal tip into the ground, breaking up a heap of sod. He dumps the sod into a wheelbarrow and begins the process all over again.

For some, this scenario might bring to mind a day of tiring yard work or an episode of a do-it-yourself television show. For others, repetitive, physical labor is a way of life.

That is the case for a group of men who have settled in Johnson City from Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. Because of the suffering economy there, Jorge Cadenas Jimenez and brother Abram Cadenas work for a landscaping company to support their mother, who has had bone cancer for about six years.

Jimenez’s eyes widen as an interpreter asks if he feels any pain after work.

“Well, if you’re working, you’re going to get tired,” he says with a chuckle.

Jimenez and his friends admit to pain in their wrists and arms, which they often treat with pain relievers such as aspirin or Tylenol.A. Marsh EN-BHC working hands of Pablo photo

The men say they work 10 hours a day, five days a week during the summer and fall months, and seek indoor work during the winter. Working 50-hour weeks doing the same tasks over and over increases their chance of pain and injury.

It seems the working conditions the Cadenas brothers described have become normal. Jobs now involve longer hours, little rest time and more repeated tasks, says a September 2009 report, “Fractures in the Foundation: The Latino Worker’s Experience in an area of Declining Job Quality,” released by the National Council of La Raza. These changes have led to a rise in injuries and sickness at work, the report says.

Aches and Pains

One of the most common ailments from repeated work is constant back pain, says Nathan Fethke, assistant professor for the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. Pain may also happen in the neck and shoulders, which Fethke says can lead to problems in all of the tendons in the shoulder, called the rotator cuff.

In fact, tendons can become irritated for workers with recurring wrist, elbow or knee pain, Fethke says. Carpal tunnel syndrome—tingling, numbness or muscle damage in the hand and fingers—may happen to those with regular wrist pain. Hand-arm vibration syndrome is another repetitive injury linked to jobs involving the passing of vibrations from a tool to a worker’s hand and arm.

It is important to note differences between a sprain or strain of a body part and a condition resulting from the types of tasks done at work, Fethke says. The longer an employee does a certain job, the more likely he or she will face health problems.

Maria, who did not want to give her last name, knows all too well about the effect repetitive motions can have on the body over time. She has been working as a “packer” in a factory for about 10 years. Her job calls for heavy lifting, bending and the use of a glue gun, which requires wrist movement. As a result, she has carpal tunnel syndrome and a dislocated disk in her back. For treatment, Maria visits a chiropractor and takes prescription arthritis medicine.

“The doctor recently told me that I needed to change jobs or the pain and injuries were going to get worse,” she says.

Hurtful source

How do doctors discover that the aches and pains such as Maria’s are related to the work she does? The best way is to get a complete medical history of a patient and ask some important questions about their job, says Dr. Joseph Florence, director of rural programs at East Tennessee State University’s Department of Family Medicine.

He told a group of medical students and doctors at the Bristol Family Medicine Center to ask their patients the following questions:

• What is your job?
• How do you do your job?
• Are you exposed to hazards?
• Are your co-workers exposed?
• Are you happy with your job?
• What is one thing you would change about it?

Not everyone hears these questions. Carolyn, now in her 60s, has been a cashier since she was 15. Like Maria, she did not want to give her last name. In early 2008, she began having hip pain. An X-ray found no broken bones. A few days later, Carolyn felt her hip pop and could not walk. Doctors said she had a stress fracture. Carolyn says they never asked about her job, which she thinks caused her injury.

In cases like Carolyn’s, the job design has a lot to do with the number of injuries sustained. If a mat were provided for Carolyn to stand on, it could have helped ease the pressure between her feet and the concrete floor.


Ergonomics is a way to make jobs fit workers, without making employees do things that are painful or awkward for their bodies. At ETSU, a team of student researchers has found some jobs are not designed with workers in mind.

For example, in factories and packinghouses, some employees have neck strain because the conveyor belt they work on is too high for them. If a worker sits on a stool adjusted incorrectly, it can lead to pain in the neck and upper body. Feet dangling from a stool is also dangerous. Hamstrings will tighten, leading to lower back pain, say the student researchers.

As for farm work, crouching down to pick tomatoes or other fruits or vegetables can be a health risk for two reasons. First, nonstop knee bending and the hoisting of filled buckets onto trucks can be painful. Secondly, most workers are paid by the bucket and not by the hour. This raises their chance for injury because they are less likely to slow down if they are hurting, says Fethke, a former professor at ETSU.

What can be done about workplace pain? ETSU student researchers came up with several answers while working with employees of a packing house. Studying this workplace can help turn guesses about ergonomics into real solutions.

They recommend offering risers for workers who are not at the correct height to do their jobs pain-free. They also suggest providing “sit-stand stools” so workers can switch positions.

New farm equipment designs can also lower employees’ chances of having pain. To stop the hoisting of buckets into truck beds, ETSU nursing student David Morrissette has designed two types of trailers lower to the ground so a bucket could slide across the bed. He also drew a mechanical swinging arm that would lift buckets to the worker in the bed of the truck.

Jones and Church Farms in Erwin, Tenn., makes sure each employee attends a safety class before beginning work, says office manager Renea Jones-Rogers. Workers get breaks every two hours and can move to a different job or suggest changes if they have pain, she says.

Relations between those in charge and workers are not always so friendly. Looking at the design of jobs, Fethke visits companies that want to reduce accidents or pain from repeated motions. Fethke recommends managers allow workers to talk freely about changes they would like to see.

Although changing job and equipment design could reduce workplace injuries, one thing stands in the way. Employers will not change anything if it leads workers to slow down or produce less, according to Fethke.

“You can’t limit production,” he says.

Above, right: Pablo's hands show years of hard work. Photo by Amanda Marsh

First published in El Nuevo Bristol Herald Courier

Read 1356 times Last modified on Friday, 23 January 2015 01:06