During Agricultural Safety Awareness Week (March 3-9), the Oregon Farm Bureau Health & Safety Committee reminds farmers and ranchers to remember the importance of hearing protection.

Noise that’s common in agriculture-related jobs can affect health in many ways, in addition to hearing loss. Prolonged noise exposure can quicken the pulse rate, increase blood pressure and narrow blood vessels. Over a long period of time, this may place an added burden on the heart.

Noise can also cause abnormal secretions of hormones and tensing of muscles. People who deal with noise every day may complain of nervousness, sleeplessness and fatigue. Job performance may also suffer when people are exposed to high levels of noise.

Loud noise is the most common cause of permanent hearing loss — and the full extent of damage may not be apparent for years. Unfortunately, noise-induced hearing loss does not heal and cannot be corrected by hearing aids.

However, it can be prevented.

If you have to shout, yell, or speak loudly to talk to someone who is 3 feet away, you are working around noise levels that necessitate hearing protection because you are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss over time.

The following are signs that noise may pose a risk to your hearing:

• You have to shout to make yourself heard during work.

• You have ringing in your ears after you leave work.

• You have difficulty hearing normal speech and other sounds after work.

Most hearing specialists agree: You can damage your hearing if you are continually exposed to noise greater than 85 decibels over eight hours. As noise levels rise above 85 decibels, the safe exposure time for unprotected ears falls dramatically. For example, 110-decibel noise can impair hearing after just 15 minutes of exposure. For most farmers and ranchers, the work day goes way beyond 9 to 5. The longer the exposure to noise is, the lower the number of decibels needed to induce hearing loss.

If you can’t eliminate or control the noise, then look to personal protective equipment, such as earmuffs, earplugs and canal caps. These can all reduce the amount of noise exposure from common farm sounds like tractor idling, barn cleaners, conveyers, and grain elevators — all of which are in the decibel danger zone.

Following are some general guidelines for farmers and ranchers to help safeguard their hearing, courtesy of University of Maine Cooperation Extension.

• Use hearing protection on all noisy jobs, the minute the activity begins.

• Regard quiet operation as a “plus” value when shopping for tractors, machinery, or other equipment (this includes household appliances).

• Keep machinery and equipment well-lubricated and maintained. Regularly tighten all components.

• Replace defective mufflers and exhaust system parts. Do not use a “straight pipe” exhaust for tractors or other engines. This type of exhaust does not increase power very much and often emits sound levels that can damage hearing.

• Consider enclosing noisy components or building acoustic barriers or heavy partitions for stationary equipment.

• Stay away from noisy equipment when you don’t need to control or tend it.

• Limit the duration of noise exposure if you are without hearing protection. Put yourself and your ears as far away from a noise source as possible.

No one is ever too young or too old to suffer from the effects of hearing loss from noise. Take steps today to safeguard your hearing, and your employees’ hearing, on the farm or ranch.

Cory Stengel is chair of the Oregon Farm Bureau Health & Safety Committee, a fourth-generation farmer, and member of Deschutes County Farm Bureau.

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