Community and Lifestyle

Bush health: Listen to warning signals about industrial deafness

Beef Central, 23/05/2012

 

A staggering 75 percent of Australian farmers suffer from hearing loss, and most of it is self-inflicted.

It’s statistics like this that prompted medical, health and well-being experts to gather in the Victorian town of Casterton last week to help farmers and their families have a quieter and clearer future.

Australian National University's director of the National Institute for Rural and Regional Australia, Anthony Hogan, said the ‘Shhh… Hearing in a farming environment’ program was an exciting innovation for farmer health.

But more than that, Dr Hogan said he believed the program was essential.

"People just don't understand how fast permanent damage can be done – and traditionally farmers are amongst the most vulnerable," he said.

"Just 15 to 30 seconds on a chainsaw is just about too much. It's very simple. If you have three beers you can't drive. If you have more than 30 seconds of chainsaw you can't hear.”

"Just one discharge of a shotgun is 120 decibels – that's your daily dose of excessive noise."

Of the nine primary producers who attended the Casterton workshop, four demonstrated hearing loss, as did two of their partners.

At the age of 50, an average of one in three Australians has hearing loss.

Dr Hogan said at 60 that climbs to one in two. By 75 it is three in four.

But for farmers and their families the damage is being done a lot sooner.

The Casterton workshop was part of a research program being conducted over 28 months in Victoria and Queensland being run by the Hamilton-based National Centre for Farmer Health.

Its director, Susan Brumby said researchers will be armed with integrated sound level meters tracking farmers of every discipline to pin down the decibel damage.

Professor Brumby said what many people don't realise is a person with hearing loss problems will on average suffer three more health diagnoses than someone with normal hearing.

"Putting up with bad hearing is actually damaging your overall health," she said.

"People straining to hear, to cope with what should be routine communication, are also taxing their bodies at the same time."

“The rule of thumb is simple – if anything you do leaves you with a ringing in your ears, you have already suffered temporary damage. Keep it up and the damage is permanent."

For participating farmers, the ‘Shhh… hearing’ program offers them the opportunity to have a farm noise audit done and to check the levels of their machinery, as well as receiving practical advice on hearing protection available, thus preventing further hearing damage.

"At the end of the program there will be a research article and the information we bring together will be of immense value to the agricultural industry," she said.

"It will also be just as valuable for doctors and healthcare professionals, prompting them to conduct early intervention hearing assessments and educate farmers on the importance of hearing protection.”

The success of the ‘Shhh… hearing’ program has been overshadowed by a funding crisis at NCFH.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has funded the program bringing critical research to rural Victoria and farmers everywhere, at the same time as the Victorian government is pulling the plug on general funding for the Centre.

Dr Hogan said there was "nothing like NCFH anywhere in Australia and access to rural health services is hard enough without risking the future of such a unique organisation."

"Obviously the need is there, but just as clearly the Victorian government does not have the welfare of rural and isolated Victorians on its agenda,” he said.

Dr Hogan said the ‘Shhh… hearing’ program was based on a Canadian model which addresses occupational hearing loss.

“It is a real opportunity for Australian farmers to have this access because it is the kind of support not normally available to them without the work by groups such as NCFH.”

"A key will be teaching people about what we call administrative controls – something they use to plan their approach to jobs where they know noise levels will be high," he said.

"For example, instead of trying to do all the chainsaw work in one day, they will make sure they are equipped with the best helmet and ear muffs, and spread the job over several days.”

"With something as dangerous as a chainsaw, it is not just the noise going in your ears, damage is also done through vibrations in the skull.”

"The rule of thumb is simple – if anything you do leaves you with a ringing in your ears, you have already suffered temporary damage. Keep it up and the damage is permanent."

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