Nearly 75% of all farmers suffer hearing loss. Those aren't good auditory odds, considering only one in 10 of the general public develops hearing loss, according to the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH).

The farm can be a noisy place. And the fact that many producers don't even flinch at the revving of a tractor engine or a high-pitch pig squeal is evidence that those common and frequent farm noises have already done some damage.

Hearing loss can happen gradually, so gradually that it may not be noticeable to the person who's losing his or her hearing, says John Slocombe, Kansas State University Extension farm safety specialist. “It can be caused by both loudness and the length of time a person is exposed to the loud noises,” he explains. “On the farm, that means exposure to running engines, loud livestock, or power tools can damage hearing in as little as two hours, unless some type of hearing protection is used.”

Other noise culprits include feed grinders, silage blowers, ventilation fans, chain saws, lawn mowers, wood chippers and firearms. According to the National Safety Council, many of the farm noises you are surrounded with each day are at or well above the 85-dB level where damage can occur (see top table, next page). Limiting your exposure to the triple-digit-decibel noises will reduce the chance of permanent damage, according to NYCAMH research. High-decibel noises — over the 100-dB level — can only be tolerated for 15 to 30 minutes without protection (see bottom table, next page).

The bad news about hearing loss is that it is permanent, Slocombe says. “Once it is lost, you can't get it back. The good news is that hearing is easy to preserve,” he notes.

Slocombe says that if any noise is so loud that you have to shout to be heard over it, or if the noise hurts your ears, makes your ears ring, or leaves you slightly deaf for several hours after exposure, it is too loud and you should be using ear protection.

Earplugs and earmuffs are available at most farm supply, hardware and discount retail stores. When properly fitted, plugs and muffs allow you to hear conversation and the sounds of machinery, but at a safer volume. “An added benefit of using hearing protection is that you will feel less fatigued at the end of the day,” Slocombe says.

There are four basic types of hearing protection: disposable earplugs, reusable earplugs, hearing bands and earmuffs. No matter which type you choose, look for a product that carries a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 25 or higher. In theory, this is the number of decibels of noise that the product will filter out if the plug fits the wearer perfectly. “To get a more true measure of protection from these types of products, you should divide that rating in half,” says Ryan Jaeger, safety product manager for Gempler's. “With a perfect fit, the product will provide a higher level of protection. But in the real world, users don't always take the time to get a perfect fit.”

Earmuffs

Of the four types of hearing protection, earmuffs are the most popular. “They are easy to put on and to use correctly,” Jaeger says. “We also have several models that have a built-in radio, with a volume-limiter feature that prevents the radio from being played above the 82-dB level.”

People who have heavy beards or sideburns or who wear glasses may have difficulty getting a good seal with muffs. Earmuffs also can feel hot and heavy in some environments. Prices range from $10 to $26 for plain muffs or more than $100 for models with radios.

Disposable earplugs

Also called expandable foam plugs, these plugs are made of a formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each person's ear canal. To use them, you need to roll each one into a thin cylinder before inserting it into your ear.

“These are the most comfortable type of earplug for most people, and because they conform to each person's ear canal, they provide good protection,” Jaeger says. “They are also the most inexpensive option for those with occasional hearing protection needs, and you simply throw them away when you're done with them.”

However, he cautions, “you need to make sure your hands are clean when you put them in, so you don't accidentally get harmful material in your ears.”

The price of these earplugs is less than $1.00/pair, with some costing as little as $0.15/pair when bought in bulk.

Molded, reusable plugs

Premolded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are manufactured as either “one size fits most” or in sizes for small, medium or large ear canals. The key to getting a good seal with these plugs is making sure you get the right size. “They are easier to insert than the foam type, but they usually don't expand as well and may not provide as good a fit,” Jaeger says.

Molded earplugs are relatively inexpensive, reusable, washable and convenient to carry. Prices range from $0.40 to $1.00/pair.

Hearing bands

Sometimes called canal caps, these devices have earplugs mounted on the ends of a flexible plastic or metal band. They can be worn over the head, behind the neck or under the chin.

The main advantage of hearing bands is convenience. You can hang them around your neck when it's quiet and can quickly insert the plugs in your ears when it's noisy. “They may not be as comfortable as other types of protection, and they seem to work best when you need hearing protection for short periods of time,” Jaeger says.

Prices range from $4.00 to $8.00/set.

The best hearing protection is the type that is comfortable and convenient and that you wear regularly. So choose protection that seems best for your ears and work style. “If it is comfortable and easy to use, you should have no excuse for not using it,” Slocombe states.

Farmers also should have their hearing tested regularly. “An audiogram will reveal signs of hearing loss so that steps can be taken to reduce exposure and stop further hearing damage,” Slocombe says.

To shop for hearing protection equipment, contact Gempler's, Box 44993, Madison, WI53744, 800/382-8473, visit www.gemplers.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

Typical sound levels on the farm

Noise source Noise level (in decibels)
Tractor 74-112
Grain dryer 81-102
Combine 80-105
Chain saw 77-120
Feed grinder 93-97
Pig squeals 85-115
Riding mower 79-89
Garden tractor 88-94
Source: National Safety Council

Limiting loud noise

Noise level (in decibels) Type of noise Maximum number of hours before damage (without protection)
60 Normal conversation Safe
70 Routine barn noise Safe
90 Milk house vacuum pump 8
95-100 Many tractors 2-4
110 Chain saw ¼-½
Source: NYCAMH library