Women, Tools and Ergonomics

(Photo/video permission granted by Green Heron Tools for use with educational materials through FReSH)

Use the following format to cite this article:

Women, tools and ergonomics. (2017) Farm and Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health (FReSH) Community of Practice. Retrieved from http://articles.extension.org/pages/74543/women-tools-and-ergonomics.


According to the United States Department of Agriculture – Economic Research Service, the number of farms operated by women continues to grow. A snapshot of women-operated farms is typically small farms but often diversified. Some characteristics of principal women farm operators include older and more educated than their male counterparts but also rely more on off-farm work income. Women in agriculture have different challenges than their male counterparts but one area that is sometimes overlooked is tool selection.

The majority of tools were designed and manufactured for males. Therefore, they were designed for the height, strength and body type of a man. However, women have a difficult time using these tools because of their body and strength characteristics. Because women have 40-75% less upper-body and 5-30% less lower-body strength compared to men, tools for women need to be designed so they are able to utilize more of their lower-body strength.

Typically women are smaller in stature and have proportionally shorter legs and arms. For a woman to use a tool that is too long, it can require her to work harder, cause physical pain, and strain muscle because the tool is not the right size. Compare this to using a piece of equipment with an undersized tractor and the strain that it places on the tractor and places it at risk.  Another physical difference for women is that they have wider hips and more narrow shoulders. Women typically have more adipose (loose connective tissue) than men. The grip of a tool can be one of the biggest issues because women tend to have smaller grips. However, most tools were designed for men so the grips are too big for some women’s hands which may cause the tool to slip, strain muscles in the female’s hand, and place women at risk of an injury.

Women continually use tools that are not the optimal tool for them to complete tasks. These non-optimal tools can place women at risk for an injury. In the past, women did not have options when it came to choosing a tool but times are changing and the market for tools that are specifically designed for women is making an impact. Research by McCoy, Carruth, and Reed (McCoy, et al) recommended that engineering research should be utilized when designing machinery or equipment for women farmers. Yoder, Adams and Brensinger (Yoder et al) conducted online surveys and focus groups with women concerning tools and found that there was a consensus in the following feedback: tools were too long or heavy, mechanized equipment was difficult and heavy to control, unbalanced hand tools, and poorly located or sized handles or grips. Engineers affiliated with Penn State University and, later, the University of Nebraska worked with Green Heron Tools on the research and design of a line of tools for women.

Green Heron Tools was founded by two women with backgrounds in public health, nursing, research & education who were also small-scale farmers. Recognizing the links among tools and equipment and health and safety, they successfully applied for a USDA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to research the tool-related needs of women farmers. The company has since received three additional SBIR grants, including its current grant, focused on the design of equipment to assist with the lifting and carrying of heavy materials such as feed bags, hay bales and full buckets.

The 2016 i-Three Corp project between the Ag Safety and Health Community of Practice and Wearable Technology Learning Network worked with Green Heron Tools to look specifically at manure forks for women. Green Heron Tools developed a handle that is used on most of their tools that has been tested for ease of use. For the manure fork testing, the team used the Green Heron Tool handle but used different manure fork heads to test the design of the head portion of the tool. In the past, testing was completed using complex heart and breathing monitors to measure changes as a person used the prototype tool. The i-Three Corp project used wearable technology with a heart rate monitor linked to a mobile device to complete this round of testing. This configuration was easier for the testers to use and it was assumed that an increased heart rate during tool usage indicated it was more difficult to use the tool. A graduate student at the University of Missouri, Division of Food Systems and Bioengineering Department of Agricultural Systems Management Program is also testing the manure fork with women farmers and ranchers in Missouri.

The impact of this project was evidence-based tool development that is specifically designed and tested for women by women. Research data from this study will enable Green Heron Tools to complete the manure fork design and begin manufacturing.

Another project working with women, tools and ergonomics is the national Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program: 21st Century Management: Enhancing Educational Programming for Beginning Farm and Ranch Women. The Farm Safety, Mechanization, and Ergonomics team led by Karen Funkenbusch is made up of women from agriculture safety and health professionals, extension specialists, rural health care providers, and farmers and ranchers. Her team is collaboratively working with eXtension’s Farm & Ranch eXtenision in Safety and Health (FReSH) to collect practical resources for improving farm safety, mechanization, and ergonomic for educators and beginning women farmer’s and rancher’s and storing them in one central location on the eXtension FReSH website at www.extension.org/agsafety.


Ergonomics and Farming – California AgrAbility

Secondary Injury Prevention: Ergonomics on the Farm – Ohio State University


About green heron tools. (n.d.) Green Heron Tools. Retrieved from http://www.greenherontools.com/about.php.

Hoppe, R., & Penni Korb. Characteristics of women farm operators and their farms. , EIB-111, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, April 2013. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=43750.

Reed, D, McCoy, C.A., & Carruth, A.K. (2001) Women in agriculture: Risks for occupational injury. Retrieved from http://nasdonline.org/static_content/documents/1815/d001759.pdf.

Yoder, A.M., Adams, A.M., & Brensinger, E.A. (n.d.) Designing tools and agricultural equipment for women. University of Nebraska Medical Center. Retrieved from http://www.agrisk.umn.edu/conference/uploads/AYoder1540_01.pdf.


Summarized and Reviewed by:
Ann Adams, Green Heron Tools
Liz Brensinger, Green Heron Tools
Linda Fetzer, Pennsylvania State University – lmf8@psu.edu
Karen Funkenbusch, University of Missouri – FunkenbuschK@missouri.edu
Aaron Yoder, University of Nebraska Medical Center – aaron.yoder@unmc.edu

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