When people outside the industry ask about the biggest safety risk for landscape contractors, my answer is always the same: “If by ‘biggest safety risk,’ you mean what could kill them, it’s a piece of equipment rolling over on them. But the hazard that landscapers face every day is noise exposure and hearing loss.”
It’s hard to find statistics specifically on the landscape industry, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related illness in the United States, estimating 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss since 2004. If you work in the field and don’t practice good hearing safety, you will experience hearing loss.
Hearing loss is a tricky problem: It usually causes no pain, has no visible trauma, leaves no scars and is completely unnoticeable in the early stages. It accumulates with each exposure and can take years to notice any changes. It can’t be cured, but it can be prevented with good hearing safety practices.
Hearing loss is a function of noise level (measured in decibels) and exposure time, but a small increase in noise, only 3 dB, cuts the safe exposure time in half. Hazardous noise levels are defined as exposure above 85 dB for an 8-hour work day. That is roughly equivalent to being on, or around, a fairway or rough mower all day. If you are operating a chainsaw at more than 100dB, you could experience hearing loss in as little as 15 minutes.
The good news is hearing loss associated with hazardous noise exposure at work is almost completely preventable through the use of engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Engineering controls include choosing low noise tools and equipment, like low noise backpack blowers; keeping equipment well-lubricated; and using sound barriers around reel grinders and other loud equipment. Administrative controls are safety rules you establish to limit the time an employee is exposed to hazardous noise, or restricting worker access to high noise areas.
Finally, if engineering and administrative controls do not reduce the noise to a safe level your crew should wear personal protective equipment, either ear muffs or ear plugs. They should select the one that is right for them based on comfort, compatibility and convenience. Hearing protection devices are very effective and carry a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) indicating how many dB they reduce the noise level. The higher the NRR, the more effective the protection.
About the author
Mickey McCord is the founder of McCord Golf Services and Safety, providing safety training for superintendents and turf maintenance crews. Check him out at mccordgolf.com.