Chapter 27: Human Factors and Ergonomics Practice in Agriculture: The Challenges of Variety and Complexity

by Dave O’Neill and Dave Moore

Practitioner summary

Agriculture globally encompasses an extremely wide range of activities, jobs, people and technological settings, and there can be confusion about where the boundaries of this sector lie. Technologically, the degree of agricultural mechanisation ranges from the use of human muscle and energy using very basic hand tools, through to automated systems requiring little human interaction except for occasional control operations. The workforce is unusually difficult to define, especially because the farm is normally a home as well as a workplace. There are marked seasonal fluctuations in labour demand, which may be met in a variety of ways. Accordingly, it is a costly and often elusive sector to study. The potential areas of human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) engagement are numerous; they have worldwide relevance and could affect up to half the world’s population. Highly participative methodologies have consistently proved to deliver the most successful interventions. For HF/E practitioners to gain credibility in farming communities we have to offer opportunities for wealth creation (or money saving), faster working (or time saving) or greater comfort (or reduced workload and drudgery).


Chapter quotes

“In the exploitation of natural resources, the production of food is probably the most ubiquitous. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), about half the world’s population is engaged in food production…from small-scale subsistence, predominantly, to large-scale commercial enterprises, which contrast strongly with the heavily labour-intensive practices of subsistence farming families.”

“The need to work with animals, often with body weights and strengths exceeding those of a typical human, sets agriculture apart from most other industries. The difficulties of handling and generally managing farm animals, from the shearing of sheep to the milking of cows, create ergonomic problems specific to agriculture. Irrespective of the degree of mechanisation or automation, equipment designers must consider not only the human-machine interface but also the human-animal interface and, preferably, the animal-machine interface, in pursuing complete system compatibility.”

” A consistent issue for those conducting studies or attempting to formulate interventions including policies and regulations is the lack of clarity over who is, and isn’t, a part of the workforce…”

“The conflicts between health, safety, productivity and comfort as implied in the third example are common in the agricultural sector. It is particularly noticeable in the use (or otherwise) of PPE where the discomfort of wearing extra clothing in hot conditions, the annoyance of restricted movement or the frustration of not being able to communicate normally can result in the protection being abandoned.”

Practitioner reflections

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About drclairewilliams

I am a senior consultant at Human Applications and Visiting Research Fellow in Human Factors and Behaviour Change at the University of Derby. Most of my work just now deals with leadership and culture in the health and safety realm; trying to support organisations to take a systems approach to understanding behaviour. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @claire_dr
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