2012-03-23 Shhh! This is one message you simply have to hear

It might not sound like much compared with climate and the dollar, but hearing loss is a major problem on Australian farms.

However someone is listening to farmers 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 research program over 28 months in Victoria and Queensland. This program will have researchers armed with integrated sound level meters tracking farmers of every discipline to pin down the decibel damage within their farming operation.

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 saleyards. Research assistant Heidi Mason says 85dB is the recommended maximum noise level. So if farmers 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 artillery can only muster 140dB.

“The program is called Shhh hearing in a farming environment and we started with training in February,” Heidi says.

“Our team is NCFH director Sue Brumby, Cate Mercer-Grant, Warwick Williams from the National Acoustics Laboratory and Anthony Hogan from Australian National University and me,” she says.

“In training we completed noise audits on a sheep farm at Vasey (most noise from the elbow of a shearing down-tube), beef enterprise at Dunkeld (cattle in crush) and a dairy at Byaduk (putting on suction cups).

Now Shhh hearing in a farming environment will be rolling the program out offering farmers from Sustainable Farm Families programs the opportunity to participate.

Heidi says they are focusing on farmers who believe they may have some difficulty in hearing and will be covering a variety of industries from cropping, dairy, livestock and remote pastoral enterprises.

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

What the farmers say:

Farmers involved in hearing trials with the Shhh hearing in a farming environment program have got the message loud and clear. This is an area where people’s health is at risk. Two of the participants say they know plenty of farmers with hearing aids – or ones who don’t, but should. And both admit being surprised by their own unexpected exposure to noise they had never noticed or considered.

Edward Blackwell

Beef and sheep enterprise

Edward Blackwell is a fourth-generation farmer running a beef and sheep operation who has always been conscious of noise.

“I wear ear muffs when I use a chain saw, or in the workshop, but never really gave a thought to something as routine a yard work,” Edward says.

“Yet the noise spikes really amazed me, particularly around the cattle crush when I was shown the figures,” he says.

“I am 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

Wool and prime lambs

Paddy Fenton says he and Bronnie already have a strong safety focus on every aspect of their farm, right down to having installed a left-hand stand in his shearing shed.

He says while it might never be used, it is 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 says.

“The only thing they didn’t record was me swearing at the crossbreds when trying to get them penned,” he says.

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

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

“I do know some shearers who wear ear plugs but then they simply turn the music up louder, so everyone has to suffer so knowing where the hearing problems are will be valuable.”

Further details are available from Cate Mercer-Grant (03) 5551 8533