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.
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.
OSHA recommends earplugs or other hearing protection for prolonged exposure to noises louder than 90 decibels.
How loud is 90 decibels? Not at loud as one may think.
A shop vac produces a dB sound level of 97, and a leaf blower or metal girder creates 110, while squealing pigs creates 100.
As little as two hours of driving an open-cab tractor or two minutes running a chainsaw can cause a temporary hearing loss, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
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.
How loud is too loud?
According to researchers, any noise that causes a ringing in the ears or a temporary reduction in hearing is too loud, or if one must raise their voice above a normal speaking voice just to be heard.
There are several smartphone apps that can produce an estimate of sound levels.
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.
Other health/wellness issues
Untreated hearing loss can impact more than just hearing. The Better Hearing Institute says research demonstrates the considerable effects of hearing loss on development as well as negative social, psychological, cognitive and health effects if left untreated. Those who have difficulty hearing can experience such distorted and incomplete communication that it seriously impacts their professional and personal lives, at times leading to isolation and withdrawal. The effects of untreated hearing loss include:
• irritability, negativism and anger
• fatigue, tension, stress and depression
• avoidance or withdrawal from social situations
• social rejection and loneliness
• reduced alertness and increased risk to personal safety
• impaired memory and ability to learn new tasks
• reduced job performance and earning power
• diminished psychological and overall health