What are you doing to prevent hearing loss?

Farmers are at high risk of irreversible hearing loss, and commercial fruit and vegetable growers and their workers are no exception.

Preliminary results from a survey of New York State farms showed that 65 percent of orchard fruit grower respondents reported moderate to severe hearing loss in their left ear, and 53 percent reported moderate to severe hearing loss in their right ear.

Preliminary results of that same survey by the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health also showed that only 51 percent of fruit and vegetable growers were currently using hearing protection.

“Consistent, repetitive exposure to high decibel noise can damage your hearing before you notice any change,” Penn State University Extension Safety Specialist Dennis Murphy says. Part of the problem, he says, is that extremely high noise levels may seem normal and a farmer may think he or she is getting used to the noise—when, in fact, the person’s hearing has already been damaged.

“Research has shown that farm people as young as high school age can have noise-induced hearing loss. The cause is most commonly attributed to tractors and other farm machinery,” Murphy says. If you pack and ship fruit or vegetables, repetitive exposure to loud noise in your packinghouse can also cause permanent damage to your hearing.

Noise-induced hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss may result from regularly working around farm tractors, chain saws, circular saws, hand drills or other loud machinery, tools or equipment. It can also result from operating all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), motorcycles, snowmobiles or from using firearms without wearing hearing protection.

A decibel is the unit used to measure the loudness of sound. Long or repeated exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. In some cases, however, permanent hearing loss can occur from a single explosive noise (such as nearby shotgun blast or dynamite blast) or from very short exposure to loud noise (such as running a chain saw for just two minutes), unless you are wearing earplugs or other hearing protection. (See accompanying chart for some examples of noise levels that are too loud.)

Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

If your operation is subject to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Admini-stration) regulations, know that you may be subject to federal OSHA’s Occupational Noise Exposure Standard (29 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 1910.95). This standard requires employers to have a hearing conservation program in place whenever employee noise exposure levels equal or exceed an eight-hour, time-weighted average sound level of 85 decibels. (For more information on this standard and access to other hearing-related resources, visit www.osha.gov/SLTC/index.html, then click on “Noise and Hearing Conservation.”)

Short of measuring all of the noise levels on your farm or other operation, how can you tell if a noise seems too loud? One quick test, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says, 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.

“Frequently asking people to speak up or the inability to follow conversations in a crowd can indicate hearing loss,” Murphy says. “You may also have some hearing damage if you listen to the radio or television at a volume that seems too loud for your family or friends.”

Ringing in your ears

If you have ever driven an open cab tractor for several hours, then heard a ringing in your ears for the next hour or two, it is likely a condition called tinnitus, the perception of sound in the ears or head where no external source is present. In almost all cases, tinnitus is a subjective noise, meaning that only the person who has it can hear it.

While many people who have tinnitus hear ringing in their ears, some hear different sounds: crickets, whooshing, pulsing, ocean waves, buzzing, dial tones and even music, the American Tinnitus Association (www.ata.org) says. Many people with tinnitus may hear these sounds 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you think you may have tinnitus, it is likely that some level of hearing loss has already occurred. While in some cases tinnitus can be quieted, there is no cure for it, just as there is no way to reverse hearing loss that has already taken place. A hearing aid will amplify sounds, but won’t undo the damage that has already been done.

One of the most important things you can do if you think you may have already experienced hearing loss, or work around loud machinery, tools or other equipment, is to immediately begin using hearing protection.

The three basic types of hearing protection are earplugs (disposable or reusable), “canal caps” (ear plugs that are attached to a headband) and earmuffs (the kind that protect your ears from high noise levels, not the kind that keep your ears warm in winter).

Hundreds of styles of hearing protection are available on the market, yet many growers and their workers fail to use it.

One reason, Murphy says, is that many farmers “are afraid they won’t be able to hear something that they want to hear; for example, a change in the sound of an engine.” Other reasons for not using hearing protection range from complaints that it’s uncomfortable to not keeping it in a nearby, convenient location.

“If you want to be able to hear your grandkids a few years down the road, you need to wear hearing protection now,” Murphy says. NIOSH, which has developed numerous resources on hearing protection, has focused one of its newest brochures on young farmers in an effort to reach them before irreversible hearing loss has already taken place. (For access to more information on hearing loss and NIOSH’s resources on this topic, visit NIOSH’s Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention Web page, www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise, or call 800-232-4636 for printed copies of NIOSH’s occupational noise-related materials.)

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based freelance writer.

More Important Tips

• Know that the effects of hearing loss go beyond both tinnitus and not being able to hear the sounds around you. Researchers have found a strong correlation between hearing loss among farmers and work-related injury. Other research has shown additional health effects from noise, including mental health and cardiovascular disturbances, difficulty sleeping and negative social behavior.

• Identify the tasks you and your employees perform that may be harmful to your hearing. If possible, space out or shorten these tasks. Move non-noisy tasks away from noisy equipment, if feasible.

• Keep all machinery and equipment in good shape. Keep it well lubricated, properly adjusted and well maintained. Replace any worn, loose or unbalanced machine parts.

• Operate tractors and other farm equipment with fully enclosed cabs, whenever possible, and keep the cab doors and windows closed. Limit your exposure to other loud noises.

• Choose hearing protection that’s comfortable for you and your workers, and wear it at all times you are exposed to loud noise. Ensure that it is kept nearby—earplugs can be stored in your pockets, and other hearing protection devices can be left hanging on the steering wheel of a tractor or in another convenient place.

• Visit a certified audiologist if you think you may have a hearing problem. It’s a good idea to get your hearing tested once a year, especially if you have spent a long time working on a farm or another noisy location.

• Become familiar with the many free resources that are available. In addition to those already mentioned, the following are other good Web sites:

National Ag Safety Database hearing conservatio nmaterials: www.cdc.gov/nasd/menutopic/hearing.html

The National Institutes of Health WISE EARS! campaign: www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/wise

The National Hearing Conservation Association: www.hearingconservation.org