Do people sound like they’re mumbling? Do you have to ask others to speak up? Maybe it’s not them; maybe it’s you.
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, research has shown that those who live and work on farms have significantly higher rates of hearing loss than the general population. In fact, farming is among the occupations recognized as having the highest risks for hearing loss.
Tractors, forage harvesters, silage blowers, chain saws, skid-steer loaders and grain dryers are some of the most typical sources of noise on the farm.
Studies suggest lengthy exposure to these high sound levels have resulted in noise-induced hearing loss to farmworkers of all ages, including teenagers. Hearing loss is not as dramatic nor as sudden as an injury from a tractor overturn or machine entanglement, but it is permanent.
Measuring sound: The loudness of sound levels are measured in units of decibels, abbreviated as dB or dBA. Sound levels under 85 dBA are generally thought of as “safe,” although there is some risk of hearing loss for prolonged exposures to 80 dBA.
“Noise levels can be hazardous depending on how loud they are and how long you’re exposed to it. The louder the noise, the less time it takes to cause hearing loss,” explained Robert Williams, Noble Research Institute safety and risk manager. “High noise levels, such as 120 decibels or more, (a jet engine as an example) can cause damage in 30 seconds or less. OSHA sets action levels at 85 decibels for eight hours. A normal conversation is around 60 to 70 decibels. Anything higher than 90 decibels per eight hours is considered loud enough to warrant hearing protection or some type of noise control. As an example, a riding lawn mower is probably going to produce sound levels around 90 decibels. Based on the OSHA standard, hearing protection would be required if someone were mowing for 8 hours. It is possible for some mowers or other equipment, such as weed trimmers or blowers, to produce more noise that might reach up to 100 decibels. You should not be exposed to 100 decibel noise for more than two hours without hearing protection. Most of us don’t walk around with a sound level meter in our pocket. For this reason, it is advisable to always use hearing protection of some type when working more than an hour in noise, which is loud enough to make it difficult to carry on a normal conversation. Most hearing protection can reduce noise levels by 18 to 28 decibels.”
Knowing the signs: Warning signs of hearing loss include a ringing or buzzing in the ears a few hours after completing a task or straining to hear conversations.
“Hearing loss is not easily noticed because it usually occurs gradually and in very small increments,” Williams said. “The only way to truly detect hearing loss before it becomes problematic is by having a baseline audiogram. This is a benchmark from which measurements can be made with subsequent audiograms to determine if a loss has occurred.”
Williams added that prolonged exposure to dangerous noise levels will most likely cause additional loss.
Get tested: If you are worried you are losing your hearing, it is advised that you get a hearing test.
“Most occupational medical clinics have an audiologist or someone trained in audiology on staff who can perform the test,” Williams said. “There is no real consensus on how often to have your hearing tested. By getting a baseline when you are young, you can measure any loss over time. If no noticeable loss has occurred, it may be adequate to test no more than once a decade (age 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, etc..) Usually later in life, it becomes more important to have your hearing tested more frequently. There are other types of hearing loss besides noise induced hearing loss, but noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented by taking precautions.”
Protecting Yourself: Taking a few simple steps can help protect your hearing. The Great Plains Center for Public Health recommends:
• Perform routine equipment maintenance (fixing mufflers on engines, lubricating bearings and replacing worn parts) to reduce noise levels.
• Isolate yourself from noise. Working in motorized equipment equipped with cabs or enclosures will reduce noise exposure. Open tractors, loaders and ATV exposure operators to more noise than similar equipment with enclosed cabs.
• Use personal protective equipment. The earmuff style offers the best protection and is easy to use. Expandable ear plugs, when used properly, are the next best option. All hearing protection equipment has a Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, usually between 15 and 30 decibels. Chose the hearing protection with the highest NRR value.
• Mark “HIGH NOISE ZONE” anywhere there is risk of excessive noise exposure. Have a set of earmuffs or earplugs in or near every high noise setting on the farm.
• Limit daily exposure duration. Reducing the amount of time exposed to noise can limit its harmful effects.