Community and Lifestyle

Rural health: Industrial deafness silent enemy in the bush

Beef Central, 26/03/2012
Heidi Mason from the National Centre for Farmer Health monitors decibel levels while Dunkeld (Vic) beef producer Edward Blackwell works the crushIt might not sound like much compared with climate and the value of the Aussie dollar, but hearing loss is a major problem on Australian farms.

However someone is listening to farmers and graziers and taking steps to do something about it.

With funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Hamilton-based National Centre for Farmer Health is undertaking a two-year research program in Victoria and Queensland.

The project will see researchers armed with integrated sound level meters, tracking farmers and graziers around their properties to pin-down the decibel damage within their farming operations.

Industrial deafness is almost a standing joke among primary producers of a certain age, after years sitting in the saddle of a Ferguson tractor, or being exposed to some other source of loud and persistent industrial noise.


Auctioneers among worst offenders

Surprisingly, while the research team has been in training, apart from impulse noises such as a nail gun at 140dB, the worst offender at an eardrum-shattering 98.1 dB has been an auctioneer in the Hamilton (Vic) saleyards.

Research assistant Heidi Mason says 85dB is the recommended maximum noise level. So if farmers and graziers are being exposed to sustained noise anywhere near, or above that level, they are at a real risk of long-term, even permanent hearing damage.

A Saturn rocket generates 195dB at launch and an artillery shell can only muster 140dB.
Training for the new research and extension project, called “Shhh hearing in a farming environment”, started in February, Heidi Mason from the National Centre for Farmer Health said.

The project team includes NCFH director Sue Brumby and staffmember Heidi Mason, Cate Mercer-Grant, Warwick Williams from the National Acoustics Laboratory, and Anthony Hogan from Australian National University.

In training, the NCFH group completed noise audits on a sheep property at Vasey (greatest noise came from the elbow of a shearing down-tube); beef enterprise at Dunkeld (cattle crush); and a dairy at Byaduk (attaching suction-cups in the dairy).

Now “Shhh hearing in a farming environment” will be rolled-out, offering farmers from Sustainable Farm Families programs the opportunity to participate.

Ms Mason said the focus would be on producers who believed they may have some difficulty in hearing, and would cover a variety of industries from cropping, dairy, livestock and remote pastoral enterprises.

For farmers and graziers, the program offers the opportunity to have a farm noise audit done and check the levels of machinery, as well as offer practical advice on hearing protection available, consequently preventing further hearing damage.

Producers’ response:

Farmers and graziers involved in hearing trials with the “Shhh hearing in a farming environment” program had got the message, ‘loud and clear’, that this was an area where people's health was at risk.

Two of the participants said they knew plenty of near neighbours with hearing aids – or ones who didn't, but needed them. Several admitted to being surprised by their own unexpected exposure to noise they had never noticed or considered.

Edward Blackwell, a beef producer from  Dunkeld in Victoria, said he had always been conscious of noise risk.

"I wear ear-muffs when I use a chainsaw, or in the workshop, but never really gave a thought to something as routine a yard work," he said. "Yet the noise spikes that were recorded really amazed me, particularly around the cattle crush when I was shown the figures," he said.

"I’m only 30 and while I don't have any hearing problems, I will be more aware of these things now.”

"It really is surprising how much noise you are subject to out in the open that you just don't think about. I have no doubt this research will be of benefit to farmers in the long-run."

Paddy Fenton, a Vasey (Vic) wool and prime lamb producer, said he and wife Bronnie already had a strong safety focus on their farm, right down to having installed a left-hand stand in his shearing shed. He said while it might never be used, it was there to make for an easier drag if he ever does get a left-handed shearer.

"The sound tests the team did here covered everything – from our dogs to music, handpieces, the press and even sweeping the floor," Paddy said.

"The only thing they didn't record was me swearing at the crossbreds when trying to get them penned."

While the 51-year-old third-generation farmer says his hearing is fine, he believes those with reduced aural faculties must face challenges on the farm.

That goes from simple things like missing a call for black wool (not that he has any in his Merino flock) to the more dangerous risk of machinery.


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