Personal-protective equipment plays a crucial role in improving overall worker safety, and that’s important to every hog operation today. In fact, worker safety ranked among the most important issues to pork producers, according to a National Pork Producers Council survey. Reducing illness and injuries among farm workers should be everyone’s goal. After all, a good safety record speaks loudly in terms of your business reputation and can help you recruit and retain skilled, qualified workers. It’s also the responsible thing to do.

Respiratory illness and noise exposure are the two leading pork-production health risks, and supplying workers with protective devices is a must in certain cases. But how do you know if or when protection is needed?

If you or any of your workers have experienced signs such as chest tightness, coughing, wheezing or flu-like symptoms, chances are you should consider respiratory protection. “However, the first thing is to reduce or eliminate exposure via management procedures, if possible,” says Kelley Donham, DVM, director of the IowaCenter for Agricultural Safety and Health, University of Iowa.

If management measures alone do not reduce exposure to a safe level, personal-protective devices are perhaps all that stands between you and a health risk.

“For anyone working for an hour or more inside a swine building, especially doing dusty jobs like moving and sorting hogs, it would be smart to wear personal-protective equipment,” Donham says. “Power-washing also launches a lot of minute particles into the air, which poses a risk to the person doing the washing.” That means it’s recommended to wear respirators and eye protection.

How much dust is too much? Dust is measured in milligrams per cubic meter of air. The amount of dust present in the air before protection is required depends on whom you ask. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 15 mg of dust per cubic meter requires protection. However, OSHA doesn’t distinguish between nuisance dust and agricultural dust, which may contain more organic particles that are more inflammatory than plain road dust.

A typical swine building has about 4 mg of dust per cubic meter of air and up to 10 mg per cubic meter in the winter when curtains are closed. “Our research suggests that workers exposed to 2.5 mg of dust per cubic meter of air have a higher risk of developing respiratory symptoms,” Donham says. Exposure exceeding that level requires action, such as providing and wearing respirators.

Ammonia, one of the more common breathing hazards in swine facilities, complicates matters. If workers are exposed to ammonia and dust at the same time, they are three times more likely to develop symptoms than if exposed to just one element. Typical ammonia exposure is between 5 to 10 ppm. “Our research shows that above 7 ppm is when respiratory symptoms may begin to develop,” Donham says. OSHA regulations focus on 50 ppm, which is not typically encountered in hog buildings except for situations such as pumping manure pits in confined spaces, which requires highly specialized protection.

So, what types of respirators should be considered? Here are the most common respirators used in swine facilities.

Air purifying:

  • Disposable mechanical dust mask, which is probably the one most widely used in agriculture.
  • Mechanical mask with dust filters.
  • Mechanical mask with dust filters plus chemical cartridge. This provides extra protection as ammonia typically attaches to airborne dust particles. As dust is filtered out, this option will help filter out ammonia as well.
  • Powered air-purifying respirator. With this, the operator wears a battery pack. Such respirators offer fresh air provided through the mask.

Air supplying:

In areas where there’s a lack of oxygen and presence of gasses, such as hydrogen sulfide, a self-contained breathing apparatus may be necessary. Use of such respirators, however, requires training and careful maintenance. This option is not typically recommended for farm use due to the risks and complexities associated with it.

Before requiring anyone to use a respirator, Donham recommends having a physician evaluate the person for existing medical conditions such as asthma or emphysema. Any mask or respirator must be sized to the person’s face. It must fit snugly around the face so when the person inhales, air is drawn through the filter matrix and not through gaps in the face piece. After donning the mask and squeezing the nose-seal down tightly, exhale gently to check for leaks. If any air comes out, adjust the fit or seek a different mask size or type.

For respirator use to become a standard practice in your operation, the following factors must be considered.

  • Convenience - Devices must be stored in a location where they will be used. If the device is handy and available as workers enter the area, it’s more likely to be used.
  • Wearer comfort - People who wear glasses or have a beard may require special fitting or equipment.
  • Communication - The person needs to be able to hear and see without restrictions.
  • Maintenance - Reusable respirators require routine cleaning and maintenance.

For more information on respirators, including selection criteria, click here.

The most common occupational injury is hearing impairment, as 33 percent of workers experience some degree of hearing loss. Such damage is gradual and may go unnoticed. However, it is not reversible, and continued exposure often increases the damage. Peak noise levels are particularly dangerous and noise spikes over 140 decibels can do damage immediately.

If you notice either of the following, you may already have damage:

  • Unable to clearly hear women’s or children’s voices.
  • Difficulty hearing in areas that have background noise.

Workers in a confined space are at increased risk for hearing damage. Where exposure exceeds 90 db for an 8-hour work day, hearing protection is not only recommended, OSHA requires it.

In areas where noise levels approach or exceed the 85-db danger level, workers should wear hearing protection. Several types are available, including pre-molded ear plugs, formable ear plugs and ear-muff head sets, which offer the most efficient protection.Offer a variety of protection devices and have workers select the ones they are most likely to use. Look for a noise-reduction rating of at least 20 db.

Train workers as to when and what conditions require hearing protection. Appoint an individual to be in charge of keeping devices clean and maintained, ordered and in-stock. For more tips on using hearing protection, click here.

If not already part of your employee orientation and safety meetings, add sessions on the use and maintenance of personal-protective equipment to the agenda. Outline their use and requirements in a written program and conduct follow-up reviews.

You and your workers will breathe easier.

Protection Worth the Price

“Worker safety is becoming a higher priority on swine farms and personal-protective equipment plays a vital role,” says Carolyn Sheridan, clinical director, Agri-Safe Network, a leading personal-protective equipment provider for agriculture. For more information, click here

Here are some common respirator devices, the protection factor and a cost estimate.

Turn Down the Volume

Many tasks in a pork production system have the potential to cause hearing impairment. More times than not, hearing protection is recommended during common, everyday tasks. Certainly that’s the case when the noise approaches the 85-db danger level.