By Sharry Nielsen
Can you hear me now? What’s that? Say that again. Are those common phrases around your farm or ranch?
One of the most common health problems among agricultural workers is hearing loss caused by work in noisy environments. Hazardous noise levels are produced by many kinds of ag equipment and animals.
Think about the noise when you are using tractors, combines, grain handling equipment and dryers, feed grinders, and chain saws. Or, when you are around livestock, like squealing baby pigs.
Health specialists are especially concerned about hearing loss caused by excess noise. It is permanent and can dramatically affect your quality of life and those around you. The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable.
How can you tell if you are exposed to harmful levels of noise? Sound levels can be measured with sound level meters, but you don’t need special sound measuring equipment to start protecting your hearing. Instead, just follow these simple rules:
- If you are in a noisy location and have to raise your voice above your normal speaking voice in order to be heard, the noise is too loud.
- Any noise that leaves you with ringing in your ears or a temporary reduction in your hearing ability is too loud.
So, how can you protect your hearing? Start with a few easy steps:
- When selecting new equipment, ask about sound levels and pick the options with lower decibel (quieter) rating.
- Perform routine equipment maintenance. Fixing mufflers on engines, lubricating bearings, and replacing worn parts will reduce noise levels as well as improve equipment operation.
- Isolate yourself from noise. Working in machinery equipped with cabs or enclosures will reduce noise exposure. Open tractors, loaders, and ATVs expose operators to excess noise.
- Use personal protective equipment, or hearing protection, when working in noisy settings. All hearing protection devices have a “Noise Reduction Rating”, or “NRR”, usually between 15 and 33 decibels. Choose the hearing protection with the highest NRR value that is comfortable for you. Expandable foam ear plugs have the highest NRR and require proper insertion to be effective: compress by rolling them between fingers and thumb, insert into the ear, hold in place while they expand to fill the ear canal. Earmuffs that fit over the ears have slightly lower NRR but are very easy to use and comfortable.
Mark “HIGH NOISE ZONE” anywhere there is risk of excessive noise exposure. Have earmuffs or earplugs accessible at each location and use them wherever noise levels are high enough to interfere with normal talking. Keep an extra set with you, just in case. The less trouble hearing protection is to use, the more likely it will be used.
Limit the length of time you or your workers are exposed to noise each day. Reducing the amount of time you are exposed can limit the harmful effects.
The Great Plains Center for Agricultural Safety and Health offers a variety of information on hearing protection, as well as other safe practices for agricultural producers. Visit cph.uiowa.edu/gpcah/resources/hearing-loss.html for a table of maximum durations of exposure to various levels of noise. For more information on safety and health while farming, check out www.public-health.uiowa.edu/gpcah