Feeding and breeding sows, handling piglets, operating a tractor, power washing and grinding feed are among the many noisy tasks required to make a swine operation successful. But did you know that frequent and prolonged exposure to noise, especially levels above 85 decibels, can result in permanent hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss often starts at a young age and can get progressively worse with each exposure to loud noise. Such hearing loss not only takes a toll on your health, it also can be costly. Some of those costs include reduced productivity, time away from the job, medical expenses and increased chances of injury because the person couldn’t hear warnings or other important safety instructions.

What are the Risks?

Agriculture is among the top three occupations for noise-induced hearing loss. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Hazard evaluation at the Mansfield Swine Education Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, found that power washing (97.4 decibels), snaring pigs (99.9 decibels) and ear tagging pigs (99.9 decibels) were the most hazardous tasks in terms of exposure to loud noises. The Mansfield Swine Education Center is a 150-head, farrow-to-finish swine confinement unit. (You can take a look at the center at porkmag.com/business.)

At some large-scale pork production facilities, employees may be assigned to power wash pens for a full work shift, which means they are being exposed to loud noises all day long. Other research in agriculture has found:

  • Hearing damage among farmers who don’t regularly use hearing protection begins at a young age. A study conducted in rural Wisconsin found that approximately 25 percent of the male farmers surveyed had hearing damage by age 30. By age 50, that figure rose to 50 percent. Fewer than 20 percent of the surveyed farmers consistently used hearing protection on the job.
  • Multiple studies, including one by the
    University of Iowa, College of Public Health, have shown that farmers with hearing loss were more likely to be injured on the farm than farmers of the same age without hearing loss.

Early Warning Signs

Often, a coworker, family member or friend is the first person to notice that a pork producer or an employee is experiencing hearing loss. A coworker might have to shout to be heard. Even in quiet environments, someone with hearing damage might have trouble hearing the person on the other end of a cell phone.

Another early warning sign that your ears are being damaged by noise is a condition called “tinnitus” — a perception of sound when no external source is present. If you have ever operated an open-cab tractor for several hours or attended a loud concert, and heard a ringing in your ears for the next hour or two, that is tinnitus.

People with chronic tinnitus often hear a “sound” in their ears 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Beyond ringing, the sound might be hissing, roaring, chirping, clicking or whistling. While in some cases these sounds can be quieted, there is no cure for tinnitus. (For more information on tinnitus, see the sidebar.)

Preventing Hearing Loss

Don’t operate under the false impression that hearing loss only occurs among “older” pork producers. Be on the lookout for early signs. Here are some tips to reduce the risk of noise-induced hearing loss:

  • Understand that many activities can expose you or your employees to damaging noise. These include operating an all-terrain vehicle, motorcycle or snowmobile without using hearing protection; listening to loud music through the headphones of a personal music player; operating a tractor without an enclosed cab; or using such tools as chain saws, circular saws, table saws and hand drills. Also, even a single nearby shotgun blast or dynamite blast can result in permanent hearing loss.
  • Use hearing protection every time you are around loud noises. Provide hearing protectors for both employees and family members, and require your workers to use them. A good rule to follow is if you need to raise your voice to be heard an arm’s length away, the noise is loud enough to damage your hearing. (See the sidebar for information on a brochure that will help you and your employees properly select and use hearing protection.)
  • Keep hearing protectors in a convenient location within the operation. Place extra earplugs in your pockets and in other locations to make them easily accessible for your workers. Hang protective earmuffs or canal caps (earplugs attached to a band) on tractor steering wheels. Make sure everyone knows how to properly insert earplugs for maximum effectiveness.
  • Implement engineering controls to reduce noise whenever possible. A recommendation that the NIOSH researchers who surveyed noise levels at the Mansfield Swine Education Center have is to replace or pad metal flaps at the end of metal feed chutes with plastic or rubber material to reduce noise. Also, look into design options for feeding systems so that employees don’t have to be inside the building during animal feeding.
  • Keep cab doors and windows closed when operating tractors and other equipment.
  • Find alternate ways to monitor equipment operation. For example, instead of using noises to identify equipment malfunction, learn to read the gauges and other signals to collect information.
  • Keep all equipment and machinery in good repair.
  • Contact an audiologist or other healthcare provider for a hearing test if you suspect hearing loss. Make sure your employees get checked out periodically, and record your efforts to protect them and encourage proper hearing health.

You don’t get a second chance to maintain or regain the hearing you were given.

Editor’s note: Barbara Mulhern is a Wisconsin-based agricultural journalist who specializes in safety and health issues.