Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

Participating Core and Specialty Programs: Center for Occupational Robotics Research, Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies

Researchers, safety and health professionals, professional associations, foundations and employers use NIOSH information to prevent musculoskeletal disorders among agriculture, forestry and fishing workers, especially considering the aging workforce.

NOTE: Goals in bold in the table below are priorities for extramural research.

  Health Outcome Research Focus Worker Population* Research Type
A Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) Whole body vibration (e.g., sit on/ride in old equipment) Agriculture subsector; aging workers and other vulnerable workers Basic/etiologic
B Back and upper extremity MSDs Repetitive motion (e.g., bending over, long working hours, robotics) Dairy workers; aging workers and other vulnerable workers Intervention
C MSDs Manual harvesting Agriculture subsector; aging workers and other vulnerable workers Intervention
D MSDs Whole body vibration (e.g., mechanized harvesters) Forestry subsector Basic/etiologic
E Hand and upper body MSDs Hand and upper extremity vibration (e.g., work at tree stump, chainsaws use) Forestry subsector Intervention
F Upper body MSDs Repetitive motion Commercial fishing workers Basic/etiologic


G MSDs Lifting (e.g., product) Seafood processing workers Intervention Translation

* See definitions of worker populations

Activity Goal 4.1.1 (Basic/Etiologic Research): Conduct basic/etiologic research to better understand relationship between exposures to vibration and repetitive motion and musculoskeletal disorders among agriculture, forestry and fishing workers.

Activity Goal 4.1.2 (Intervention Research): Conduct studies to develop and assess the effectiveness of interventions and public health practice efforts to prevent musculoskeletal disorders among agriculture, forestry and fishing workers.


Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have been described as one of the foremost adverse work-related health conditions among farm workers [Taghavi et al. 2017]. Several studies have shown increased risk of developing MSDs among agricultural workers compared to other occupational groups [Holmberg et al. 2002; Maetzel et al. 1997; Manninen 1996; Morse et al. 2007; Stiernström et al. 1998]. Annual prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms has been estimated between 40% and 73% among U.S. agricultural workers [Alterman et al. 2008; Gomez et al. 2003; Rosecrance et al. 2006; Villarejo and McCurdy 2008]. Significant associations were observed between performing equipment repair and maintenance and low back pain; milking animals and neck/shoulder pain; and manual material handling and elbow/wrist/hand pain, among others [Fethke et al. 2015].

MSDs are common among workers in the fishing sub-sector as well [Bloswick and Dzugan 2014]. In a study conducted among commercial fishermen along the coast of North Carolina, 84% reported musculoskeletal symptoms for any region of the body in the previous 12 months. Of the U.S. fishermen that reported symptoms, 39% indicated that those symptoms were at a level sufficient to limit their work activity in the last year [Lipscomb et al. 2004]. In a recent study among lobstermen of the Northeast U.S., one half of the respondents reported low back pain [Fulmer et al. 2017].

There is limited information on the prevalence of MSDs among forestry workers in the U.S. Much of the research in this area has been conducted in Scandinavia and Europe. In a study among loggers in Poland, the prevalence of any self-reported MSD symptoms during the last twelve months was 94%. The highest occurrence of symptoms was for lower back (66%), hands/wrists (50%) and upper back (46%) [Grzywiński et al. 2016]. Additionally, a study among logging machine operators in the Southern U.S., 10.5% reported a MSD diagnosis, 74.3% reported at least mild back pain, and 71.7% reported at least mild neck pain over the past year [Lynch et al. 2014].


Given that little is known about the background and cause of MSDs among agriculture, commercial fishing, and forestry workers in the U.S., future research efforts should further characterize hazards in all three of these extremely labor-intensive sub-sectors. Effective methods for addressing MSD risk factors include reducing the weight of the load lifted through engineering or administrative controls and using ergonomic guidelines to design work stations and work tasks. Studies have shown that the incidence of work-related MSDs can be decreased when workers reduce task repetition and adopt a less extreme working posture. Furthermore, these modifications may improve symptoms in already affected dairy workers, manual harvesting workers, and fisherman [NIOSH 1997]. Future research is needed to address reducing biomechanical risk factors (whole body vibration, static postures, repetitive movements, spine stability, and work duration) in forestry workers, and taking into consideration possible interactions between these risk factors [Jack and Oliver 2008]. To address MSD issues in agricultural workers, researchers could develop and target interventions to highly diverse farmer and farm worker populations, and better identify risk factors for vulnerable occupational groups [Davis and Kotowski 2007]. The effectiveness of interventions in dynamic workplace environments should also be assessed, particularly to ensure they fit within the business model of industries [Douphrate et al. 2013].

Alterman T, Steege AL, Li J, Petersen MR, Muntaner C [2008]. Ethnic, racial, and gender variations in health among farm operators in the United States. Ann Epidemiol 18(3):179-186.

Bloswick DS, Dzugan J [2014]. Ergonomics Training in the Commercial Fishing Industry: Emerging Issues and Gaps in Knowledge. J Agromed 19(2):87-89.

Davis KG, and Kotowski SE [2007]. Understanding the ergonomic risk for musculoskeletal disorders in the United States agricultural sector. Am J Ind Med 50(7):501-511.

Douphrate DI, Lunner Kolstrup C, Nonnenmann MW, Jakob M, Pinzke S [2013]. Ergonomics in modern dairy practice: a review of current issues and research needs. J Agromed 18(3):198-209.

Fethke NB, Merlino LA, Gerr F, Schall MC, Branch CA [2015]. Musculoskeletal pain among Midwest farmers and associations with agricultural activities. Am J Ind Med 58(3):319-330.

Fulmer S, Buchholz B, Scribani M, Jenkins P [2017]. Musculoskeletal disorders in Northeast lobstermen. Saf Health Work. Advanced online publication, external icon

Gomez MI, Hwang S, Stark AD, May JJ, Hallman EM, Pantea CI [2003]. An analysis of self-reported joint pain among New York farmers. J Agric Saf Health 9(2):143-157.

Grzywiński W, Wandycz A, Tomczak A, Jelonek T [2016]. The prevalence of self-reported musculoskeletal symptoms among loggers in Poland. Int J Ind Ergon 52:12-17.

Holmberg S, Stiernström EL, Thelin A, Svärdsudd K [2002]. Musculoskeletal symptoms among farmers and non-farmers: a population-based study. Int J Occup Environ Health 8(4):339-345.

Jack RJ, Oliver M [2008]. A review of factors influencing whole-body vibration injuries in forestry mobile machine operators. Int J Forest Eng 19(1):51-65.

Lipscomb HJ, Loomis D, McDonald MA, Kucera K, Marshall S, Li L [2004]. Musculoskeletal symptoms among commercial fishers in North Carolina. Appl Ergon 35(5):417-426.

Lynch SM, Smidt MF, Merrill PD, Sesek RF [2014]. Incidence of MSDs and neck and back pain among logging machine operators in the southern US. J Agric Saf Health 20(3):211-218.

Maetzel A, Mäkelä M, Hawker G, Bombardier C [1997]. Osteoarthritis of the hip and knee and mechanical occupational exposure–a systematic overview of the evidence. J Rheumatol 24(8):1599-1607.

Manninen P [1996]. Risk factors of musculoskeletal disorders and work disability among Finnish farmers. Social Insurance Institution, icon

Morse TF, Warren N, Dillon C, Diva U [2007]. A population based survey of ergonomic risk factors in Connecticut: distribution by industry, occupation, and demographics. Conn Med 71(5):261-268.

NIOSH [1997]. Musculoskeletal disorders and workplace factors: a critical review of epidemiologic evidence for work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, upper extremity, and low back. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-141,

Rosecrance J, Rodgers G, Merlino L [2006]. Low back pain and musculoskeletal symptoms among Kansas farmers. Am J Ind Med 49(7):547-556.

Stiernström EL, Holmberg S, Thelin A, Svärdsudd K [1998]. Reported health status among farmers and nonfarmers in nine rural districts. Occup Environ Med 40(10):917-924.

Taghavi SM, Mokarami H, Ahmadi O, Stallones L, Abbaspour A, Marioryad H [2017]. Risk factors for developing work-related musculoskeletal disorders during dairy farming. Int J Occup Environ Med 8:861-39.

Villarejo D, McCurdy SA [2008]. The California agricultural workers health survey. J Agric Saf Health 14(2):135.

Page last reviewed: April 24, 2018