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Dangerous Noise Levels Leave Farmers at Risk for Hearing Loss

Coleman, Matthew

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000414406.03578.b7
Figure. Di

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A farm is often viewed by outsiders as idyllic, but in reality it is crowded with plangent equipment and loud animals, stimuli that can cause serious hearing damage. Many farmers who toil more than 40 hours a week surrounded by this noise are experiencing hearing loss at a rapid rate.

Forty-eight percent of farmers in Victoria, Australia, reported hearing loss, according to the National Centre for Farmer Health. NCFH, located in Victoria, recently compiled noise audits on farms and said the percentage could rise. “Farmers have a wide range of exposures, and unlike other occupations, these exposures may begin very young in life because most male farmers grow up on farms,” said Janet Ehlers, RN, an occupational health nurse at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “They may be next to a truck or close to a grain dryer when they are a year old. Then they start doing farm work very young.”

Ms. Ehlers, an advocate for hearing loss education for farmers, and others compiled the NIOSH brochure, “Have you Heard? Hearing Loss Caused by Farm Noise is Preventable,” which gave an overview of hearing loss and available protection. “Farmers don't typically have any hearing conservation education unless they too work in a noisy factory that provides it,” Ms. Ehlers said.

Farming equipment, such as grain dryers, circular saws, tractors, hand drills, and combines, has a noise level above -85 dB, which is considered too loud. Even squealing pigs can measure around 100 dB. “[B]arns are getting larger, and the noise level depends on how many animals are on the farm and whether it is feeding time or there are sows with new piglets, but, yes, pigs are noisy,” she said.

Hearing damage depends a lot on the length of exposure to a particular noise. Farmers perform different tasks throughout the day, and over time it can have a negative effect on their hearing. Small amounts of exposure to a chain saw, for example, can be dangerous. “You can be exposed to a chain saw for two minutes before it becomes hazardous,” explained Pamela Graydon, an electronics engineer at the CDC who grew up on a farm, “but who uses a chainsaw for just two minutes?”

An alarming lack of knowledge about the dangers of hearing loss was found during CDC workshops designed to educate agricultural teachers. “Some [teachers] are angry because no one told them that exposure to noise would be harmful,” Ms. Ehlers said. “[Teachers] learned to make sure students wore eye protection, but no one mentioned hearing. Some of the teachers are angry because they figure they have hearing loss themselves because of exposures they were never educated about.”

Farmers can take several simple actions to assuage hazards, including keeping a tractor in good repair, buying quiet equipment, and carrying bolts and wrenches in plastic containers as opposed to metal. Loudness is inevitable, though, so purchasing hearing protection is vital, even if it takes time to find formable plugs. “Hearing protection is like shoes,” Ms. Graydon said. “[Y]ou need to find one that fits so you will wear it when you need to.”

Making sure hearing protection is readily available is also important. “Farmers are not going to run back to the house for it, so make sure to emphasize putting [the protection] on steering wheels, equipment, or by a cell phone,” Ms. Ehlers said.

Scheduling your days with quiet activities can help avoid loud noises, too. “If you are going to do something noisy throughout the day, try to schedule quieter activities after work to give ears a rest,” Ms. Graydon said. “If you are on the tractor all day, you are not going to want to go to the racetrack at night. That will give you an extra dose of noise.”

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.