Almost every day, you are in environments with excessive noise that could permanently damage your hearing. Protecting your hearing now — by regularly wearing protective devices — will save you from needing a hearing aid later.

“Hearing loss is an epidemic in farming because any farmer over 50 is likely to have hearing loss,” says Steven Kirkhorn, medical director and chair of occupational health at the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield, WI. “The loss can significantly impact quality of life.”

According to a recent University of Iowa study of 904 farmers, those who wore hearing aids had twice as many farm-related injuries as those who had retained good hearing and didn’t need one.

Farmers not protected

Farmers have a risk of incurring hearing loss due to frequent and continuous exposure to loud noise. Tractors, combines, choppers and grain dryers all can cause permanent hearing loss.

Despite the risk, farm families in many states are not protected by the standard noise regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), according to Roger Hoy, director of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory in Lincoln, NE. This is because OSHA is prohibited from enforcing its policies on businesses with 10 or fewer employees, which defines most farms. In addition, OSHA does not consider family members to be “employees,” which reduces the likelihood that farms will have noise-level testing done.

OSHA does not mandate hearing tests or noise-level assessments on farms because of the financial burden it would place on farm owners and managers, Kirkhorn explains. But he worries about the effect this loophole has on farm workers. “Farm workers are generally not aware of changes in their hearing until they get into their 50s,” he says. “Hearing loss is one of those hidden costs that don’t get factored in.”

Measure the noise
So how can you protect your hearing? The first step is to know when you need protection. As a general rule, an environment is too loud if you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone an arm’s length away, or if your ears ring after leaving a noisy place.

Health and safety experts suggest that a level of 90 dB is the maximum noise level that a person should be exposed to over the course of an eight-hour day. The higher the decibel rating, the less time it takes for hearing loss to occur. For example, a grain dryer rated around 110 dB can cause hearing loss in only two minutes if hearing protection is not worn.

An uncabbed tractor, power mower or snowmobile produces approximately 100 dB, and safe exposure time is only two hours, according to the Farm Safety Association in Guelph, Ontario. Noise levels at feeding time in livestock barns may be even higher.

The National Ag Safety Database and the National Safety Council provide decibel ratings for common farm activities. These ratings can help you determine the level of protection you need.

Know your options
Four basic types of hearing protection are available: formable earplugs, custom or premolded earplugs, canal caps and earmuffs. All will vary in their level of protection and thus have a different noise reduction rating (NRR), which can range anywhere from 4 to 33. The rating indicates the number of decibels the device reduces.

Kirkhorn says formable earplugs, the cheapest option, can work fine in many cases. But custom-molded plugs are generally more comfortable and thus are more likely to be worn. Kirkhorn likes corded earplugs because they are easy to slip on and off and can be conveniently kept around your neck. Under extreme noise conditions, double protection may be warranted. For example, earplugs can be worn under muffs.

A compendium of hearing protector devices can be found on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Web site. Choose devices that are comfortable and rated high enough to provide for the protection you need for farm-related tasks.

Here are descriptions of the types of hearing protection and a sampling of the manufacturers making each type.

Formable earplugs. The cheapest option is disposable foam plugs, which run about $0.20/pair according to the E.A.R Inc. Web site. They come in different sizes that conform to the ear canal. Women should look for smaller sizes.

To use the earplugs, you roll them into a thin cylinder and pull your ear back to straighten the ear canal. Insert the plug far enough to be useful and comfortable. You should wash your hands before inserting the plugs. You should not reuse an earplug after removing it because dirt can gather on the tip and be forced into the ear canal.

Moldex Goin’ Green Earplugs are made of soft, lightweight foam featuring easy roll-down insertion and an NRR of 33. Suggested retail price is $26.69 for 100 corded or 200 uncorded pairs and a dispenser. Contact Northern Safety Co., Dept. FIN, Box 4250, Utica, NY 13504, 800/631-1246.

Premolded earplugs. Made of silicone, plastic or rubber, these plugs are premolded in a variety of sizes to fit your ear. Some manufacturers offer custom molding. The plugs can be reused but must be washed and stored in a clean, dry container. Attached cords help prevent the plugs from being lost.

Howard Leight Smart Fit Detectable is a multiple-use premolded earplug on cords featuring an NRR of 25. It is made of conforming material technology that adapts to the shape of your ear canal for a personalized fit. It expands after removal. Suggested retail price is $61.80 for a box of 100. Contact US Safety and Supply Co., Dept. FIN, 167 Mason Way, Unit A3, City of Industry, CA 91746, 800/310-7233.

Canal caps. Earplugs on a plastic or metal band placed over or around the head are called canal caps. The tips can be made of formable or premolded material. This type of plug is easy to put on, take off and carry with you. However, because it covers only the ear canal, it does not protect as well as earplugs or earmuffs and is not recommended for extended use, according to the Hearing Conservation Program. Look for models with tips that look like their own separate earplug and that adequately block noise. The band should adjust comfortably to your head.

E-A-R flex premolded tips are semi-insert, nonirritating plugs ideal for intermittent use. They feature an NRR of 27 dB, which the company claims is the highest available in semi-insert hearing protection. Contact Amerisafe Inc., Dept. FIN, 3990 Enterprise Ct., Aurora, IL 60504, 630/862-2650.

Earmuffs. Earmuffs cover the entire ear to block out noise. The latest technology is noise-canceling earmuffs, which reduce noise to a safe level while allowing wearers to hear warning signals and other people, says Jeffrey Birkner, vice president of technical services for Moldex-Metric. Some earmuffs come with an AM/FM radio. Glasses, hair or hats may impede protection by breaking the cushioned seal.

Electronic earmuffs from Elvex (model Com-655, Level Dependent) use an impact filter to eliminate outside noise by closing the sound you hear after sensing the sound wave from the noise. The filter will then open after the loud sound has passed. Suggested retail price is $69. Contact Elvex Corp., Dept. FIN, 13 Trowbridge Dr., Bethel, CT 06801, 800/888-6582.

The NoiseBuster Active Noise Reduction (ANR) Safety Earmuffs are industrial grade and have an audio input so you can use the product in a noisy setting and listen to music or radio programming without overamplifying. The earmuffs combine passive hearing protection (with an NRR of 26) with the most advanced ANR technology. Suggested retail price is $149. Contact Pro Tech Technologies Inc., Dept. FIN, 217 Westport Rd., Wilton, CT 06897, 203/210-7230.

Proper fit
A hearing protection device must fit properly for maximum protection. Birkner says a simple way to test fit is to cup your hands over the hearing protection when you enter a noisy area. If you hear a difference with your hands cupped, the device probably does not fit correctly.

Have your hearing tested regularly, starting at a young age. Many insurance companies will cover the cost but may require a physician’s order. Call your insurance company to see if your plan covers hearing tests. If paid out of pocket, hearing tests cost around $100 to $150. If you detect a problem, such as ringing in the ears, have your hearing checked immediately.

4 ways to block noise

1. Make hearing protection readily accessible on farms, especially in noisy areas.
2. Put more distance between you and the noise, which is the easiest way to decrease noise level.
3. Look for a tractor’s noise-level rating before buying. Some tractor companies use their noise reduction rating as a selling point. Newer tractors are generally better at muffling sound. But turning on the radio or opening windows can reduce or eliminate the muffling effect.
4. Keep up with routine maintenance on equipment, such as greasing bearings and replacing old mufflers.