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0909 PD: Reduce your risk of noise-induced hearing loss

Barbara Mulhern Published on 05 June 2009

Grant Duerst, 16, knows that when he works around loud noises on his uncle Tom’s dairy farm, he has to use hearing protection. Grant, who regularly performs most tasks on the 500-acre farm, has heard his uncle talk about his own partial hearing loss.

“I don’t know if it’s because of age or because of being around the farm equipment,” says Tom, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in rural Verona, Wisconsin. “We didn’t have hearing protection when I was a kid, but I have been using it the last 25 years.”

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Noise-induced hearing loss, which results from being around loud noises, both on and off the farm, often starts at a young age. It is preventable, but unfortunately, many young dairy farmers don’t realize that until part of their hearing is already gone. Once hearing loss occurs, nothing can bring it back. While a good hearing aid can help amplify sounds, it does not correct hearing the way glasses correct vision.

One study of 49 randomly selected full-time dairy farmers in New York State found that 65 percent showed hearing loss in the higher frequencies and 37 percent had hearing loss in the mid-range frequencies. This compared to 37 percent and 12 percent of the non-farmers who were surveyed.

Another study of farmers and rural residents in Wisconsin found that approximately 25 percent of the male farmers surveyed had experienced some hearing loss by age 30. That proportion rose to 50 percent by age 50. The same study showed that fewer than 20 percent of all of the farmers surveyed consistently used hearing protection on the farm.

Research has also shown that hearing loss increases the risk of injury. One study in Iowa found that those farmers surveyed who had difficulty hearing normal conversation – even with a hearing aid – were 80 percent more likely than the other survey participants to be injured in falls on the farm. Those farmers who had difficulty hearing were also more likely to sustain both animal- and machinery-related injuries.

How you are at risk
Noise levels are measured in decibels, and frequent and prolonged exposure to noises above 85 decibels can result in permanent hearing loss. On dairy farms, some of the tasks that can expose you or your workers to loud noises include:

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• operating a tractor without an enclosed cab or with doors or windows open
• working around a grain dryer
• operating a chain saw
• working near a vacuum pump
• operating such tools as hand drills, circular saws or table saws

Exposure to harmful noises can also occur in many other ways, such as by listening to loud music through the headphone of a personal music player. Often, the person experiencing hearing loss isn’t the first to recognize it. A co-worker, friend or family member may notice that you are having trouble hearing. Or, you may notice that you have trouble understanding what someone is saying, particularly while talking on a cell phone.

One early sign of noise-induced hearing loss some dairy farmers experience is a ringing in the ears. This is called “tinnitus.” Instead of ringing, some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping or clicking sounds. Tinnitus may appear before you notice any hearing loss. (See “Resources to assist you” for a web link to the American Tinnitus Association.)

A good rule of thumb to remember is this: If you need to raise your voice to be heard an arm’s length away, the noise is probably loud enough to damage your hearing. The most important step you can take is to use hearing protection at all times when you are around loud noises.

Tips to reduce your risk
• Identify the tasks on your dairy farm that may be harmful to your hearing. Consider such tasks as using a chain saw, working near a grain dryer, or operating a tractor – particularly a tractor or other noisy equipment without an enclosed cab. Also look at work performed in your shop with such hand tools as table saws, circular saws or hand drills. And know that working even six feet away from a tractor that is idling in your shop may expose you to noise levels greater than 85 decibels.

• Identify other ways you and your workers may be exposed to noises greater than 85 decibels. For example, do your workers regularly listen to loud music through the headphones of personal music players? Do you or they attend loud concerts? Do you or they use a chain saw at home? Reminder: Even a single exposure to a nearby shotgun blast, dynamite blast or other very loud noise can damage your hearing.

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• Use hearing protection whenever you are exposed to loud noise. Require your workers to do the same. Hearing protection, such as earplugs or protective earmuffs, is available from many sources, including home improvement and farm stores. Have a supply of earmuffs and earplugs on hand and make them available to your employees. Make sure you train your workers in how to properly wear hearing protection.

• Keep hearing protection in a convenient location. Hang earmuffs or canal caps (earplugs attached to a band) on your tractor’s steering wheel. Encourage your workers to put earplugs in their pockets every morning when they grab their cell phones and keys. Don’t keep earplugs on the dashboard of your truck if you won’t be using your truck the rest of the day.

• Limit exposure to loud noises. Ensure that cab doors and windows are kept closed. Train your workers to stay away from noisy equipment if they don’t need to be near it. If your workers must perform noisy tasks, consider rotating them to reduce the amount of time they must spend near loud noise.

• Maintain all equipment and machinery in good repair. Replace any worn, loose or unbalanced machine parts. Keep equipment well-lubricated and maintained. If you notice a loud muffler on your tractor, now is a good time to replace it.

• Train your workers to reduce their risk of hearing loss. Use the information in this article and in the accompanying article, “Resources to assist you.” Make sure they understand that hearing loss is preventable and that once hearing loss has occurred, it cannot be brought back.

• Have your hearing tested if you suspect any hearing loss. A health care provider such as an audiologist is a good person to see. Remember that your family members or friends may be the first ones to notice your hearing loss.

Resources to assist you
Many good, free resources are available to assist you and your workers in learning more about noise-induced hearing loss. Among these are the following:

• Two new brochures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that are specifically aimed at young farmers. “They’re Your Ears: Protect Them – Hearing Loss Caused by Farm Noise is Preventable,” and “Have You Heard? Hearing Loss Caused by Farm Noise is Preventable: Young Farmers’ Guide for Selecting and Using Hearing Protection” can both be accessed online at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/pubs/no_pubs.html . Printed and bulk copies are also available at no cost by e-mailing

• The NIOSH Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention web page. This web page, which can be accessed at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise , includes links to additional resources.

• Dangerous Decibels, www.dangerousdecibels.org ; the American Tinnitus Association, www.ata.org ; the National Hearing Conservation Association, www.hearingconservation.org ; and Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (a non-profit group that educates young people about the dangers of exposure to loud music), www.hearnet.com

• AgriSafe-sponsored webinar entitled “Preventing Hearing Loss in Agriculture,” www.agrisafe.org , then click on “Education,” then on “Archived Sessions.” PD

Barbara Mulhern
President
RB Editorial & Consulting

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