Hearing loss from noise is permanent but preventable
Your child or grandchild’s first words. The meadowlark’s song. Your spouse saying, “I love you.”
The thought of missing out on these sounds is heartbreaking. If the sound you’re not hearing is a cry for help, a honking horn, or a smoke detector, the results could be dangerous or even deadly.
Farming is a noisy business. According to the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health (GPCAH), hearing loss from noise exposure is common among agricultural workers. It usually occurs gradually over the span of several years and may not be noticed until it’s a serious problem.
Grain dryers, tractors, combines, livestock, chain saws and other saws, and firearms are the top culprits when it comes to hazardous noise on the farm.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
The short answer is if you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone 3 feet away, the environment is too loud. If a noise causes ringing in your ears or a temporary reduction in hearing, it’s too loud.
The specific answer is that any sound level over 85 decibels or prolonged exposure to sounds over 80 decibels can cause hearing loss, according to GPCAH.
The average level for a push mower or ATV is 90 decibels; enclosed tractor cab or grain auger, 92; air compressor, 95; shop vacuum, 97; pigs squealing, 100; pressure washer, 102; tractor with no cab, 105; metal grinder, 110; and chain saw, 115.
The best way to be sure of a sound level is to measure it. While sound meters are expensive, several free decibel meter apps are available for smartphones.
Fortunately, there are ways to protect your hearing even when you have to be in noisy environments.
Your first line of defense is to reduce the noise around you whenever possible. Ask about sound levels when buying new equipment, keep machinery in good working order so it runs quieter, and use tractors with enclosed cabs whenever possible. It’s also good practice to limit the amount of time spent in noisier situations, because the longer the exposure, the more damage that occurs.
There’s no way to completely eliminate damaging noise levels. Choosing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) can help reduce exposure and save your hearing.
When shopping for PPE, check the noise reduction rating (NRR) and choose the option with the highest number, generally between 0 and 35. The overall decibels are reduced by the NRR when PPE is worn correctly.
GPCAH says earmuff-style ear coverings offer the best protection and are easiest to use. Expandable ear plugs that roll up and go into the ear canal are the next best option, but they must be inserted correctly to be effective.
Other PPE include premolded or custom-molded earplugs and canal caps, which are earplugs on a band that can hang around the neck when not in use. In extremely loud environments, both earplugs and earmuff-style PPE can be worn for dual protection. Keep in mind that when wearing both, the true NRR is not the sum of the two NRR numbers. Rather, according to the CDC, doubling up adds 5 decibels to the higher NRR.
One reason farmer workers may not want to wear PPE is that they need to be able to communicate and hear warning signals or machinery noises. To avoid overprotection, measure the noise level and avoid PPE that would reduce it to less than 70 decibels. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have multiple PPE options with different NRR.
Remember that the most effective type of hearing protection is the one you have with you when it’s needed, and one you’ll consistently use. Consider purchasing multiple sets of PPE and keeping them in the places where they’re needed most often.
Keep Kids Safe
Because hearing loss from excessive noise is cumulative over time, it’s important to protect children and teenagers and help them form good habits when it comes to noise.
Children learn by example, so if they see their parents wearing PPE in noisy situations, they will be more likely to follow suit. Of course, it’s best for them not to be in those environments if possible.
Young children with hearing loss can suffer setbacks in communication and language development and social skills. Teenagers are at additional risk from listening to loud music for prolonged periods.
Make sure they don’t have the volume too high and encourage them to take frequent breaks.
If you suspect your child has any amount of hearing loss, see a doctor immediately. Again, provide a good example and seek medical attention yourself if you suspect hearing loss.
Learn more about noise-induced hearing loss in children and adults at cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/.