I come from a family of farmers, and I spent many days of my childhood relishing all of the fun experiences a farm has to offer. However, life on a farm and the agriculture industry have many inherent dangers that place farm workers at increased risk of nonfatal and fatal injuries.
I witnessed my grandmother and sister doing an unintentional full throttle wheelie on an ATV. Thankfully, they returned to earth safely, but the result could have been devastating. I have vivid memories of the aftermath of my grandfather sustaining significant facial injuries from chainsaw kickback. I recall my uncle overturning a tractor, pinning his leg underneath.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in 2016, the most common cause of work-related death in farmers and farm workers was transportation incidents, including tractor overturns.
Additional known hazards inherent to farming include musculoskeletal injuries, grain bins and silos, pesticides and other chemicals, respiratory exposures and noise. According to the United States Department of Labor, farming is ranked among the most hazardous occupations for hearing loss.
One in three noise-exposed workers have hearing loss. Research indicates that individuals who live and work on farms have substantially higher incidences of premature hearing loss compared with the general population, due to chronic exposure to harmful noise levels.
Hearing loss is not as dramatic, or typically as instantaneous, as injury from tractor overturn or an ATV accident. But, it is permanent and can negatively affect quality of life.
Noise is a potentially harmful acoustic energy. Each sound we hear elicits metabolic activity within the ear. As sound waves enter the ear, vibrations impact the ear drum and are then transmitted to the middle ear.
The middle ear contains three tiny bones that act to amplify sound waves and transmit them to the inner ear. The inner ear contains the sensory organ of the ear, called the cochlea, which is filled with fluid and lined with cells that contain microscopic hairs. These fine hairs are stimulated by the vibrations and convert sound waves into nerve impulses that are recognized by the brain, creating the sound we perceive. Hearing loss from noise is the result of damage to the hair cells in the inner ear.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, noise levels of greater than 85 decibles increase the risk of hearing loss. Nrmal conversation is typically around 60 dBA, shouting in the ear is 110 dBA and eardrums rupture around 160-185 dBA.
Farm equipment generates the following average noise levels: Tractors 95-100 dBA, inside the cab of a tractor 80 dBA, grain dryers 85-110 dBA, inside the cab of a combine 85 dBA, pig squeal 100 dBA, ATV 90 dBA, riding mower 100 dBA and chainsaw 120 dBA. An indication that a noise is too loud is if you have to raise your voice above normal speaking volumes to be heard.
The most obvious indicators that a noise exposure is potentially harmful include temporary reduction in hearing, muffled quality to sound or ringing in your ears. Repeated exposure to loud noise through time results in permanent, irreversible hearing loss. The large majority of the time, hearing loss is so gradual that it might not be obvious until it is a serious problem and no longer reversible.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has developed hearing conservation programs that outline a series of steps that are used to reduce the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
The programs promote the use of hearing protection at all times when there is potential for exposure to loud noise. Programs also include educating farmers and farm workers of the insidious risk for hearing loss, offering practical methods to assess noise exposure and informing individuals how to use hearing protection properly.
A practical method to determine if noise is potentially hazardous is if two people, standing one arm’s-length apart, have to shout to be heard. This indicates the noise level is likely above 85 dBA, and inner ear hair cell damage is likely.
Hearing conservation programs also include processes for decreasing noise sources on the farm by using engineered noise controls and ensuring that regular maintenance is performed on equipment. Additional efforts include posting signs in hazardous areas and ensuring that hearing protection is readily available in these areas. Lastly, annual hearing tests are performed to monitor hearing ability, allowing individuals to make changes to exposure, such as increasing attentiveness to hearing protection usage, if hearing loss is identified.
There are two common types of hearing protection: Ear muff style and expandable ear plugs. Both can be worn simultaneously for enhanced protection. It is best to wear hearing protection with a Noise Reduction Rate between 15-30 dB. The higher the NRR, the more effective the product. It is important to ensure that if ear plugs are worn, they are inserted and worn correctly to be fully protective.
Noise-induced hearing loss is a common, potentially permanent problem in the agriculture industry. Hearing loss has the potential to cause frustration, impede communication, increase feelings of isolation and decrease quality of life for the farmer and their family. It is important to realize that noise-induced hearing loss is a preventable injury, and that there is power in being proactive with hearing preservation.
So, if you know a farmer, thank him or her for all of the hard work and encourage diligence to health and safety.