I grew up on a farm and I have a clear memory of sitting on my Father’s lap in his Ford 5000 open cab tractor. He leant over, put the earmuffs on me while he had nothing on his ears. Of course at the time, I thought nothing of it. It is not until many years later that I can now see the flaws in this false sense of security. The muffs were old, I mean really old. They had open wounds in the padding the size of earthquake cracks. And don’t get me started on that old open-cab tractor. And finally, where were my Father’s earmuffs? Of course, a quarter of a century later, everything has progressed: tractors have cabs, there are more options with hearing protection and we all now know better. Or so I thought…
I recently went back to where I grew up to visit all my large extended family, the majority of whom are farmers and have been since they were children, learning from their Fathers. They have all done well, survived drought after drought and flood after flood. It doesn’t take long for them to get around to talking about hearing and I am curious to quiz them on what they know. I soon start hearing things such as: “I picked up a chainsaw today … used it for ten minutes and wouldn’t even think about ear muffs for that. If it’s for such a short time, I don’t need to protect my ears for that, right?” and then: “I wear my earmuffs on the tractor, so I am safe, right?” And finally: “I just fired off a few rounds, it’s loud, but it’s over in a split second. No point going to the hassle of getting my hearing protection out for that, right?” I felt a bit dizzy having listened to this information, but recovered my composure and told them they were all wrong. And didn’t that open a can of worms!
Below are some fun facts about farmers and hearing loss. I hope it motivates you to think more about something really major, a priority matter in your life that is especially important in keeping you in contact with your friends and family:
- The rate of hearing loss in farmers is ranked as one of the highest among occupations, largely due to non-compliance of hearing protection;
- Noise induced hearing loss affects up to two-thirds of farmers. The process is slow, painless and permanent;
- Noise induced hearing loss is closely related to bothersome tinnitus;
- Dangerous noise levels are intensity (volume) and time dependent. However, wearing hearing protection lowers the noise level which allows you more time before reaching a dangerous level. If you exceed that time, you are still at risk of damaging your hearing;
- Estimated noise levels during harvest can range up to 90dB. Using the table below, this suggests that you can be around harvesting equipment for approximately 2 hours unprotected before causing hearing damage;
- There is no safe level of exposure for large calibre guns. One shot is enough to damage your hearing;
- Children on the farm are also at risk of early onset noise induced hearing loss, with one study showing that farming children exhibited almost 50% more chance of hearing loss than their non-farming peers.
Equivalent Noise Exposure:
|Noise Levels dB(A)||Exposure Time|
|140||No Safe limit|
Common noises on the farm:
|Noise Source||Average Noise Level dB||Maximum Time/Day|
|Push lawn mower||90||2.5 Hours|
|Enclosed cab tractor/Combine/grain auger||92||95 Minutes|
|Air compressor||95||47 Minutes|
|Pigs Squealing, Table Saw, Irrigation Pump||100||15 Minutes|
|Ride-On Lawn Mower, Pressure Washer||102||9 minutes|
|Tractor, Combine (no cab), Grain Dryer||105||4 Minutes|
|Leaf Blower, Metal grinder||110||1.4 Minutes|
|Chainsaw||115||Less than a Minute|
So what are some things that can be done?:
- Break your day up into noisy and quiet jobs, thus lowering your daily dosage;
- Keep farming equipment such and tractors and chainsaws in good repair. Well-functioning equipment is quieter. Check for worn bearings, slackness between worn or loose parts, poor lubrication between moving parts, blunt blades, removal of silencing equipment such as mufflers, guards, vibration isolators and loss of effectiveness in door/window seals;
- Have hearing protection located in multiple key places around the farm i.e., hayshed, ute, house, with your chainsaw, on your tractor. I know that if they are not nearby, it’s unlikely you’ll go to the effort of getting them;
- Check the quality of your hearing protection once in a while. The cushions on the ear muffs should be nice and spongey, not cracked and worn. If water can get in, then so can noise;
- Think about what noise you are adding to the situation. Do you have the radio or two way radio on unnecessarily;
- If you use ear plugs, squeeze them long and thin, push them in your ears and hold them with your finger to your ears while they expand for one minute. Otherwise, they are not effective;
- If that’s too hard, purchase custom made noise plugs from us at Brad Hutchinson Hearing;
- If you are interested in knowing your noise dosage, download a noise dosimeter on your smart phone and take an average for your working day (make sure it measures dBA so you can compare it with the table here);
- Have regular hearing tests (every 2 years) to see if your hearing is deteriorating;
- If it is, then do something about it before you start losing brain mass.
What hearing protection is the right for me?
Personal hearing protection largely comes down to personal choice and what best suits the job. It’s advisable to try a few pairs and see what works for you. It’s a bit like buying new shoes –some will be a better fit over others. Ear muffs can be put on quickly and easily with little need to worry about whether they are sitting correctly. They are a bit more expensive, so chances are you won’t scatter as many around your farm or replace them as frequently as you should. They are also not suitable for jobs where you might have to wear a helmet or mask i.e., welding. Ear plugs are cheap, disposable and as a result you can have them in every nook and cranny possible. You could even leave a box on your ute’s passenger seat and put a packet in your pocket each morning. The downside is that they are rarely inserted correctly and to put them in correctly takes time. If you are unfortunate to suffer from ear infections, they may also aggravate the condition if you wear them for long periods, or are not overly clean when you insert them. If you are doing particularly noisy work, such as banging steel or using a firearm, then often one form of protection alone is not enough. In such case it is recommended that you use plugs and muffs (that there is a sign at how dangerous that noise it). There are also custom made earplugs which are easy to insert, they do a really great job and don’t interfere with other safety equipment such as helmets. They do come at a higher price, but you can be certain you are protecting your ears in the most efficient manner. They are small enough to fit in your pocket, or they can be ordered with a neck cord long enough to store them around your neck, and under your shirt. If you have questions about custom made ear plugs, or would like to organise a pair, please contact us and we can get you sorted.
So what if I get a hearing loss ….. I’ll be old by then anyway:
Sorry to burst your bubble, but you likely won’t be ‘old’ when you get a hearing loss. I fit hearing aids regularly to farmers in their forties and fifties. Research also suggests that most hearing loss occurs in the first 10 years of exposure to noise. Therefore, if you grow up on a farm and start helping out in your mid-teens, there is a good chance that by your mid-twenties there will be evidence of permanent hearing damage. But did you know that noise (not hearing loss) is also associated with:
- Increased stress
- Sleep disturbance
- Loss of concentration – increased risk of accidents
- Changes in blood pressure
- Changes in heart rate
- Decline in productivity
- Decreased work efficiency
- Digestion problems from reduced gastric activity
- Tinnitus and hearing loss.
My message is loud and clear to look after your hearing well so that the rest of your life is eventful and happy, to be enjoyed and in company. It’s a lonely old life if you can’t join in on the fun, and if it’s a burden to have to go to functions and sit and watch others laughing and joking while you’re feeling left right out. So I’d like to suggest that you get onto looking after your hearing right away.
- Plakke, B & Dare, E ‘Occupational Hearing Loss in Farmers’ Public Health Reports 107, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1992), pp. 188-192
- Coleman, M ‘Dangerous Noise Levels Leave Farmers at risk for Hearing Loss’ The Hearing Journal, May 2012 – Vol 65 Issue 5
- Mariola Sliwinska-Kowalska, Adrian Davis
- Sliwinska-Kowalska M Davis A ‘Noise Induced Hearing Loss’ , Noise and Health Year : 2012 Vol 14 Issue 61
- Ehlers JJ, Graydon PS. ‘Noise-induced hearing loss in agriculture: Creating partnerships to overcome barriers and educate the community on prevention’, Noise Health 2011 Vol13