Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Gardening Safely and Sensibly (page 2 of 3)

by Kathy Bond Borie

Friendly Tools

Friendly Tools

Bonnie Appleton, associate professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, suffered bouts of carpal tunnel syndrome from her favorite gardening activity-pruning. Appleton's injury and subsequent research propelled her into the role of an expert on gardening-related repetitive stress injuries.

Her advice -- "When you work, keep your wrist as close as possible to its neutral position, the position it's in when you're not using your hand." If your wrist is bent in any other direction, you have less strength and are more prone to injury. A wrist support in the form of a splint, brace, or glove prevents your wrist from bending without inhibiting finger movement. Wider handles (1 1/2 inches in diameter) reduce hand strain for most people. Similarly, cushiony, textured grips require less effort to hold, and reduce or eliminate blisters. Appleton also recommends wrapping your thumb around the tool handle to avoid the strain of positioning it along the handle. "Vary your hand motions," she adds, "take frequent rests, and stop at the first sign of pain."

According to Appleton, well-designed tools help. Ergonomics, the applied science that deals with how humans interact with tools and tasks, has spurred new tool development. "Once we learned the best position for a tool-task combination, we knew how to change the shape of the tool to keep the wrist in a neutral position," says Jim Potvin.

Indeed, an expanding array of ergonomically designed gardening tools is available. For example, Peta Fist-Grip tools have pistol-grip handles set at right angles to the tool head. This unique design allows the wrist to remain neutral. Additional supports that attach to the forearm relieve even more pressure on the wrist. Most of these Peta tools weigh less than 8 ounces, even with stainless steel heads and shafts.

In the ultralightweight category are Fiskars "Softouch" hand tools and pruners with slip-resistant, wider-diameter handles. Two of Felco's pruners are equipped with handles that swivel against your fingers to reduce blistering and fatigue. Ratcheting pruners from Florian and Corona require less hand strength-but more movement-per cut.

When it comes to long-handled tools, the longer the handle, the better (when you're standing). The less you bend, the less chance of back strain or injury. Long-handled tools with bent handles, such as the Snake Rake and Back-Saver rake, or bent heads, such as the swan- or goose-neck hoes, allow you to work without bending.

Peta makes pistol-grip handles that can be attached to your own rakes, hoes, and hand tools to make them more comfortable for hands and backs. Other add-on handles are available from Denman & Co., which, incidentally, will customize any tool by adding almost any tool head to the handle most comfortable for you. You can also improve the grip on any tool handle with Komfort Grips, spongy tubes that slip onto the end of the handle; or My Grip, which will mold to your hand when heated.

Whenever possible, sit down while working. Scoot-n-Do provides a padded seat on wheels. Easy Kneeler has a seat on one side, padded kneeling support on the other. If you must kneel, you can also find cushioning in strap-on knee pads and pants with padded knees.

All this talk about comfort may cause some gardeners to scoff, but Appleton believes "the health of people who garden is as important as the health of the plants they nurture." This year, in the sometimes frenzied quest for a more pleasing garden, perhaps some of the extra tending is best spent on the gardeners themselves.

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