Preventing Hearing Loss in Ag

Hearing Loss in Agriculture Can Be Prevented

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Operating a chainsaw is a noisy experience. So are running an open station tractor, grinding feed and dozens of other farming activities. Wear ear protection to prevent long-term hearing loss. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

When I was a little kid, my dad's extended family would get together occasionally for a family reunion. My grandparents had seven kids. There were 17 of us grandchildren, and my grandma was also one of seven siblings.

Being from rural Nebraska, all but one of my grandma's brothers farmed, as did a brother-in-law and, of course, my grandpa. I can vividly remember walking through the room where the menfolk in my family were sitting and talking and noticing how loudly these retired farmers were talking about the condition of that year's crops and where cattle prices should be.

I know this generation drove tractors every day exposed to much noise, and they did not use ear protection. My grandpa specifically spent many years on a Farmall M (the only tractor he ever bought new). The importance of protecting their hearing against loud noises on the farm was not an issue then. As a result, in their later years, most of them suffered from hearing loss.

Production agriculture produces high noise levels, according to a Penn State University Cooperative Extension report titled "Noise Induced Hearing Loss in Agriculture." Studies suggest that lengthy exposure to these high levels has resulted in hearing loss in farmers of all ages, including teenagers.

The Penn State report said energy from loud noises overstimulates the cilia (hair cells) of the inner ear and leaves it in a "flattened" state. This interferes with the nerve impulses sent to and interpreted by the brain (hearing).

"A way to think about this is to compare overstimulated cilia to walking on grass," the report said. "A few people sauntering across a bit of grass, and it will hold up just fine. Have an all-day party with 20 or 30 people and it might be a little worse for the wear. Have a party every day of the week, and there won't be much (grass) left."

You can reseed grass but, unfortunately, you cannot reseed your hearing, the report points out.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports exposure to noise above 85 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss.

Normal conversation happens around 50 to 60 dBs. A tractor (without a noise-cancelling cab) operating, squealing pigs and running grain dyer can all produce around 100 dBs of noise. Even something smaller, such as running a chainsaw or operating hand tools, can also produce enough noise to damage hearing.

The CDC suggests using hearing protection equipment, such as formable, pre-molded and earmuff protection. The formable protection must be rolled down tightly before you try to insert it into your ear canal.

The CDC also offered several tips on using hearing protection correctly. When an earplug is properly inserted, your voice will sound deeper or louder. Use clean hands when inserting earplugs, as dirt can irritate your ears. When removing earplugs, slowly twist to break the seal. Pulling the plug quickly could harm your ear.

We have always used the earmuff type of ear protection on our farm for loud tasks. Grinding livestock feed is one chore which jumps to my mind for which we utilized ear protection.

Between the noise of the running tractor and the operating grinder/mixer, this was probably the loudest chore we did on the farm. You had to wear the earmuffs because if you didn't, your ears would ring for hours afterward.

Other tasks for which we use ear protection include operating the chainsaw, driving open-station tractors and even running the riding lawnmower. I didn't use them when I mowed until recent years when I bought a pair of earmuffs with a radio built into them. Now I can't mow without them.

I think we learn from the mistakes of the previous generation. In the case of using ear protection, I think my dad and three uncles who farmed did a better job of protecting their hearing than their fathers did. They probably have some hearing loss from farming (my dad attributes most of his to running a loud John Deere 730 diesel tractor for several years in his younger days), but probably nothing like the previous generation suffered.

I hope my generation and future generations will follow suit and protect our hearing. As the Penn State report pointed out, once hearing is gone, it cannot be "reseeded."

The Penn State University Cooperative Extension report can be found at….

The CDC report can be found at….

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Russ Quinn