COLUMBIA, Mo.– Protecting their hearing might be the farthest thing from the minds of most farmers as they drive tractors, operate chainsaws or check grain drying in their bins, but not being cautious around these loud noises produces irreparable damage.

“Farmers have lifelong exposure to levels of noise that cause hearing loss,” said David Baker, University of Missouri assistant dean of agriculture extension and a former state safety and occupational health specialist. “These higher exposure levels mean farmers who don’t protect themselves will invariably experience hearing loss that will impact their lives.”

Agriculture ranks high among industries that take their toll on hearing.

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) surveys, more than 43 percent of workers in U.S. agriculture encounter dangerous levels of noise. Farmers rank only behind mines, factories and utility workers in exposure to high levels of noise.

Even short bouts of loud noise can cause permanent hearing loss.

As little as two hours of driving an open-cab tractor or two minutes running a chainsaw can cause a temporary hearing loss. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends earplugs or other hearing protection for prolonged exposure to noises louder than 90 decibels.

“Sounds that register above 90 decibels cause harm over a period of time, and farmers often don’t know the risk level they are exposed to,” Baker said. “Combined with the perceived hassle of wearing hearing muffs all the time, awareness issues and the idea that hearing loss goes with the territory cause higher prevalence of hearing loss among farmers than some industries.”

Farm operators and managers report the second-highest hearing difficulty (22 percent) of all occupational categories in data collected from 1997 to 2004, according to the NIOSH survey.

Parts of the inner ear like the cochlea and small hairs that line its membranes are damaged by continued exposure to loud noise. Over time this can eliminate hearing of high-frequency noises, like the voices of women.

While some farmers might joke that it could be a blessing to not hear everything their wife says, hearing loss can result in ringing known as tinnitus, reduced muscular control and disruption of sleep as well as the reduced ability to understand other people.

One solution is to reduce noise from machinery.

Simple maintenance can help with much machinery racket. Replacing worn or loose parts cuts down on vibration, maintaining properly working mufflers cuts exhaust noise and isolating yourself with an acoustically designed tractor cab all reduce exposure.

Still, keeping hearing protection handy and actually using it around loud equipment remains the biggest challenge for farmers. One in four ag workers admitted they don’t use hearing protection.

Baker acknowledges that convincing farmers to protect their hearing can be a tough sell but should be addressed.

“Farmers are by nature risk-takers,” he said. “They are losing their ability to sense the risk but getting them to realize the long-term harm is a start.”

For more information about hearing loss, see the MU Extension guide “Noise: The Invisible Hazard” (G1962), available for free download at


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