Hearing Protection on the Farm

Ag Biz News Column
Chad Gulley
County Extension Agent—Ag/NR
Smith County


Hearing Protection for Farm Workers

            Farming can be quite noisy at times so it is important for farm workers to protect themselves from hearing loss when possible.  Did you know that it is common for farmers to lose hearing in one ear faster than the other?  Typically one ear is facing the tractor exhaust or loud towed machinery more than the other as the farmer has to constantly look back toward the working equipment.

Sound is measured in decibels designated as dB (A).  Decibels are measured with a tool called a decibel meter.  For example a tractor at idle speed may produce 85 decibels; a tractor at work may produce up to 100 decibels.  According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, sounds of 85 decibels or higher can damage hearing.  Decibels of 80 can cause damage to hearing if exposed to this level for more than 8 continuous hours.  Noise with a decibel of 120 can cause damage almost immediate such as using a chain saw.  Decibels over 140 degrees can cause pain in the ear from any length of time from exposure such as gun shots with any length of exposure.

Agricultural workers rely on sound on the farm in order to make sure the machinery is working properly.  For example, when baling hay the pitch and sound variations in the drive chains may be a signal it’s time to oil or lubricate mechanical parts.  Some equipment sounds different when in a bind, climbing steep inclines, and doing down steep embankments as well.

Brief periods of excess noise may have only minor effects.  Tinnitus which is ringing or buzzing in your ears or muffled hearing for a few hours after working on the farm may occur.  Repeated exposure without protection over the ears may cause permanent hearing loss.

So what hearing protection should I use?  Hearing protection is designed to reduce noise exposure to a safe level.  Two common types of hearing protection, acoustical muffs and ear plugs are available.  Used properly, these hearing protection devices can greatly reduce the decibels to a safe level.

Acoustical muffs are placed over the ear to provide a sound barrier to the entire ear.  Acoustical muffs do not block out all sound, but they do reduce the sound to a safe decibel level.  Ear muffs will generally reduce decibel levels by 20 to 30 decibels.

Ear plugs are made to fit inside the ear canal and come in formable or preformed designs.  Ear plugs can typically reduce decibel levels by 26 to 33 decibels.  Ear muffs and ear plugs worn together can add another 3 to 5 decibels of protection.  Both work well and can provide some relief from long term exposure to noise at 80 decibels or higher.

Some tips to help reduce noise exposure levels on the farm include keeping the machinery and equipment lubricated, replace defective mufflers and exhaust parts, and limit exposure to the elevated noise.  Some people today are purchasing power tools and hand held equipment such as lawn mowers and chain saws with built-in noise reduction systems.

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