Point-Source PPE
A Strategy for Controlling Noise Exposures in Agriculture
BY CHANDRAN ACHUTAN
For those of us living in agricultural states, the arrival of autumn means that the harvest season is just around the corner. For farmers, it means long hours harvesting corn and soybeans on their combines. The time farmers spend in proximity to these machines adds to their already considerable exposure to noise. A 2005 paper published in the Journal of Agromedicine established that farmers experience higher rates of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) than non-farmers of similar age. Sources of hazardous noise on farms include machinery, equipment, and livestock. Although the newer tractors and combines have cabs that block engine noise, farmers are still overexposed when they step outside of their combines, work on equipment, and conduct other work-related tasks. (The sidebars throughout this article describe a few of the noisy tasks that farmers typically perform.) HEARING LOSS RISK NIOSH estimates that more than 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise on the job. An additional nine million are at risk for hearing loss from other sources, such as solvents and metals. While noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable, once acquired, it is permanent and irreversible. Workers in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector have a high prevalence of exposure to hazardous workplace noise (43.3 percent), according to a paper published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2008, and the second highest prevalence (22 percent) among all industries of hearing difficulty after construction. Farmers also experience higher rates of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) than non-farmers of similar age. Hearing loss among farmers may begin at an early age; farm children have been found to have greater hearing loss than urban children. Studies of noise from farm equipment have found average levels of 92 decibels. Unlike workers in general industry, farmers work in a non-regulated environment and are not commonly served by work-based health programs. Other challenges to using hearing protection in the farm work environment include intermittent noise exposure and diversity of noisy work activities. Although the best way to prevent NIHL is to eliminate noise whenever possible (for example, through “buy quiet” programs and the use of automation), elimination is often not technically or economically feasible in the farm work environment.
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