Pain in the ear

Hearing loss is a problem in the landscape industry but it doesn’t have to be.

Imagine lying in bed at night, unable to sleep because your ears are ringing. Or what about not being able to hear people say S or T sounds? Suddenly the word “stop” sounds a lot different.

These two scenarios can become a reality if you don’t wear ear protection on the job.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines hazardous noise as starting around 85 decibels. Standard lawn mowers are between 90 and 100 decibels.

“Noise exposure in the landscape industry certainly falls in that category of hazardous,” says Brad Witt, director of hearing conservation for Honeywell Safety Products. “It’s a tricky occupational hazard.”

An important thing to remember is that noise is an on-the-job injury. Just like heavy lifting and climbing stairs, noise can also cause a long term disabling injury, and it’s not something landscapers can easily avoid.

“Users are holding or sitting on the noise source,” he says. “You can’t get away from (it) because you’re carrying it with you.”

How it happens.

Hearing damage isn’t caused by a single exposure to noise. It happens from a balance between the intensity of the sound and the duration of the exposure.

“If you’re working around 90 decibels for eight hours a day, it certainly takes its toll,” Witt says. “Ears can recover from that a few times, but if you do that day after day and your ears don’t recover, (the damage) stays.”

And while that noise may not bother you, it doesn’t mean it’s not still causing damage.

“Don’t wait for it to hurt,” Witt says. “The pain threshold comes a lot later than the damage.”

Because of individual variability, OSHA requires a hearing test for workers exposed to loud noises. The test compares your current hearing results to the results of previous years’ tests to see if there’s any change.

“It would take months and years before we lose that hearing,” Witt says. “It is permanent hearing loss, so when you lose hearing from loud noise, it’s gone for good.”

Hearing loss doesn’t just mean sounds get softer. Loud noise causes high frequency hearing loss, which means you wouldn’t be able to pick up certain verbal sounds, such as the T or S. That causes words to become garbled and hard to understand.

As far as the ringing in your ears, everyone experiences it for a few seconds and it goes away. But if you have serious hearing loss, it could be permanent.

Your crew.

As the person in charge, it’s important to make sure you’re offering your workers good personal protective equipment. You can’t force them to wear it, but Witt suggests giving them multiple choices so they’re more likely to use it on the job.

He suggests earmuffs, which are easy to put on and take off when you’re working with intermittent noise. However, he says it’s hard to wear muffs with a hat, so another option is earplugs. Muffs that go behind your neck or banded/corded earplugs so you can leave them around your neck when you’re not in the noise are other options.

And while it may sound easy to just head up to the home improvement store and pick out some earplugs by the register, Witt says those aren’t typically the best options for professional landscapers who deal with so much continuous noise. You may have to search for them, or order them specifically, but your crew’s safety is worth it.

It’s also important to remind workers that hearing loss doesn’t have to happen to them.

“You don’t have to give up hearing to work this job,” he says. “That’s not the price you pay for being in this industry.”

Read Next

Stand by your van

October 2015
Explore the October 2015 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.