Planter Health

Planter Health

Medical Advice for Planters

Your body will suffer wear and tear for two major reasons: the wear and tear of the actual muscular movements of planting, and the effects of exhaustion. Taking care of yourself will prevent lots of problems from coming up and will make you more comfortable.

Here are some things to keep in mind when planting:

  • Eat enough. Do not skimp on food. Women should realize that planting is a major weight-loss clinic, and shouldn’t even think about dieting. You will burn 5000-7000 calories per day minimum while planting. You will get in amazing shape. You will be hard as a rock. Your jeans will be baggy. Kate Moss types do not belong in the bush
  • Have a good camp set-up. If you don’t sleep well and can’t be comfy in your tent, you’ll hate planting and be miserable, tired, etc. Have a warm sleeping bag, dry and bug-free tent, soft Therm-a-rest, etc.

Things not to do when planting:

  • Do not stretch in the morning if you have not warmed up with aerobic exercise. Stretching unexercised muscles damages them. Stretch after work
  • If you injure something, don’t use it. I would advise against stretching of sprains, and working injured muscles or joints usually makes things worse. Treatment for sprains, tendonitis, bursitis, and back injuries involves Immobilization or restriction of range of motion, often accompanied with physical therapy
  • If you are sick, get rest. Your body will heal if it gets rest
  • Be skeptical about so-called non-Western medical treatments. Some herbal medications do work really well, but others are of questionable use

In some companies, support staff will hassle planters who complain of illness, because the number one thing in a foreman’s mind is production. However, in the long run, you will do far more damage to yourself and lower your overall production by working when sick or injured than by taking time off. You may feel guilty, or bored, and just antsy because your body is pumped to plant but you have to sit around. Taking time off will allow your body to heal. If you are losing two hundred bucks a day plus camp costs sitting around, this is annoying. But if you work when sick, you are working below capacity, and you will prolong your illness.

Planting techniques that prevent medical problems:

  • Use a staff instead of a D-handled shovel. This will eliminate the claw, tendonitis, bursitis, and elbow pain (from impact shock). Staves feel funny to learn on, but work much better in the long run. The use of a staff theoretically eliminates a majority of planter medical problems
  • Do not overload your bags. Most people plant far, far better with light loads than with heavy ones. Heavy bags can take a long time (demoralizing you) and strain your back. Aim for a bag-up that you can finish in about an hour at most
  • Do not use your back bag, unless the checkers limit the number of trees you are allowed to place in your side bags. A filled back bag gets lifted every time you bend down to plant a tree. This places incredible strain on your lumbar (lower) back vertebrae and muscles. Use the side bags only. Trust me, this makes a huge difference
  • Use waist straps to carry as much of the weight as possible. This reduces back stress considerably. Use the shoulder straps as little as possible
  • Wear two pairs of socks to prevent blisters
  • Wear appropriate hand protection: webbed gloves are often used
  • Protect yourself from the sun. Wear a sunhat and cover your ears. Wear suntan lotion. Wear sunglasses (if you can get clear UV protectors). These double as eye protection from twigs, etc. Tinted sunglasses are absolutely useless
  • Drink lots of water, even on cool days. Loss of fluids means muscle cramps, bad sleep, headaches, etc.

How to Treat Problems:

  • Blisters – put moleskin or duct tape over it to prevent it from further rubbing. Change this daily. If the blister pops, clean it daily with water and mild soap. At night, take off the duct tape or moleskin to let it dry out. Remember, a blister emerges because of a problem with your boots. Deal with your boots. Wear more socks.
  • Tendonitis – If your hand is hard to move, and you feel and hear a creaking sound in your elbow, forearm, or wrist (and sometimes in your fingers) you may have tendonitis or bursitis. You can try to change planting hands (ie. plant with your shovel hand, use your planting hand for the shovel). Severe tendonitis demands immobilization, rest, and frequent application of moist heat, not cold packs
  • Sore Muscles – go for a short (20-30 minute) walk after dinner, or play hackysack, anything to get yourself moving for a little while. This will do marvels for you. Stretch: twenty minutes of simple stretches of hamstrings, quads, calves, etc. feels great
  • Sore Back – Stop using the back bag. Use the waistbelt more. Minimize use of shoulder straps. If it really hurts, do not plant – go see a doctor. Yoga, if you know how and have a warm room, is a miracle worker
  • The Claw – Play with silly putty, meditation balls, whatever it takes to move your fingers in a variety of ways. Buy a staff
  • Sunburn – First aid cream. Wear some clothes or a sunhat. You can’t affect the sun, but it can affect you, and will. Be careful
  • Cold or Flu – Take a day or so off to sleep. Echinacea won’t cure it but it is a good organic way to make it feel way, way better.

For other infections or diseases, go see a doctor, pronto. If you don’t deal with it, it might get worse. Stomach disorders often need antibiotics to be treated, and can rapidly get out of control.


Sleep is the single most important health-maintenance, disease prevention, and healing activity that the human body engages in. A typical adult needs nine hours of sleep per night, though very few people ever bother getting this. Sleep deprivation is cumulative, and needs to be made up by sleeping in at some point. Most tree planters are sleep deprived. Some planters will go home in August after a long, grueling season, and essentially stay in bed for two weeks.

Some causes of sleep deprivation include:

  • Caffeine. This stays in your system for up to eight hours. Amphetamines, which are similar, will stay in your system for twelve to fourteen hours. Both will interfere with the deep-sleep portion of the sleep cycle, so even if you sleep the drug is working on you. Many soft drinks, chocolate, coffee, and non-herbal teas contain caffeine
  • Alcohol. Even though it helps induce sleep, alcohol massively disrupts the sleep cycle
  • Not enough time in bed
  • Discomfort. Being cold, bug eaten, sleeping on lumps or wet, all interfere with sleep.

Short term effects of sleep deprivation include:

  • General fatigue and drowsiness
  • Memory loss and difficulty with many mental tasks (calculating, planning, problem solving)
  • Reduced attention span
  • Difficulty with reading, writing, etc.

Long term effects of sleep deprivation include:

  • Greatly increased incidence of disease. More than fifty percent of shift workers have stomach disorders, and there are hundreds of studies showing increased susceptibility to disease for those who are even moderately sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation has been experimentally used to kill animals. It’s also used as a part of human torture in the Third World. Any tree planter will tell you that late June is the time of stomach disorders, flu, the excretion problems, and general feelings of misery. This is about eighty percent due to cumulative sleep deprivation. Planters who get back from a spring season often report sleeping for twelve hours per day for the first week back
  • Changes in blood and muscular enzymes. The effects of this include feelings of lethargy and exhaustion (what planters call “burnout”), as well as of decreased cardiovascular and muscular efficiency. Essentially, sleep deprivation will make your body less and less able to metabolize food and to use energy efficiently. Studies show that sleep deprived athletes markedly underperform their well-rested counterparts.

The best planters I know are all sleep devotees – they are in bed by 9pm every night, and don’t drink like fools on nights off. Sleep will have a direct effect on your mood, health, and income. Get enough.

Preventing Tree Planting Injuries

Tree planters in BC report hundreds of work-related injuries each season. These injuries occur mostly to the muscles, tendons, nerves, and ligaments, and are due largely to the physical demands of tree planting. The reforestation industry group that includes tree planters has an average annual rate of about 22 injury claims per 100 workers. One reason for these injuries may be the pace of work – many tree planters try to plant as many trees as possible, as fast as possible. Depending on the terrain, an experienced tree planter can plant from 100 to 350+ trees per hour, or thousands per day. The work is strenuous. Good planting techniques, along with maintaining good physical fitness and choosing an appropriate shovel, are keys to preventing injury.

Based on planting 1600 trees per day, a tree planter lifts a cumulative weight of over 1000 kilograms, bends more than 200 times per hour, drives the shovel into the ground more than 200 times per hour, and travels about sixteen kilometres on foot while carrying heavy loads of seedlings. The way that these activities are performed, for example, forecefully gripping the shovel and trees, and twisting and bending the wrists, can contribute to the injuries.

Here are some ways to help prevent injury and disease:

  • Precondition your body, phase-in to work, and pace yourself
  • Choose the appropriate shovel
  • Recognize early signs and symptoms of injury
  • Use good planting techniques.

Between planting seasons, your body adjusts to less demanding physical activities that do not involve the physical requirements of planting trees. Whether you are a first-time tree planter or a tree planter returning for another season, your body needs to adjust gradually to new physical demands. Muscular aches and pains are common during the first week of planting, but the effects of these aches and pains can be reduced by conditioning your body – for example, by running, biking, hiking, weight training, etc. – BEFORE the season begins. When you start planting at the beginning of the season, pace yourself by working slower, carrying and planting fewer trees, or working shorter days to get your body used to the work. Stretch your back and shoulders from time to time. Relax your hand muscles throughout the day by opening and closing your fingers frequently.

Choose a shovel that is the right length for you. If the shovel is too long or too short, it will not allow you to keep a healthy posture – your back straight, not hunched over. Because shovels are carried and lifted up and down all day, they should be lightweight. A straight-handled shovel is preferable because it keeps your wrists straight and positioned to get the most power. A D-handled shovel may sometimes be lighter in weight, making it easier to carry, but using one can result in more bending of the wrist. This is especially true when using the shovel to make the hole. Keeping your wrists straight helps reduce the risk of injury to your wrists and arms. Some planters keep a number of different shovels on hand to accommodate different planting conditions.

Numbness, tingling, swelling, redness, and pain in the wrists, shoulders, or back are possible signs and symptoms of injury. If you continue to plant when injured, the symptoms could progress into a more serious condition. If you experience signs or symptoms of injury, take appropriate action.

To help minimize signs and symptoms of injury:

  • Move to softer ground, if possible, rather than pounding too hard to start a hole (sometimes not feasible)
  • Change hands regularly, to avoid overusing them
  • Use your foot and leg to drive the shovel in and open the hole, not just your arms and back
  • Keep your wrists straight as much as possible
  • Loosen your grip on the shovel
  • Check your technique routinely to ensure you are using proper posture and keeping your wrists straight
  • Bend your knees when bending over.

First Aid

  • Fill out forms: name, SIN, allergies, medications, etc.
  • Report all accidents/incidents immediately
  • Know who your first aid attendant(s) are