Agriculture is an industry in which workers encounter a wide variety of occupational exposures. The physical hazards from chemicals, accidents, agricultural machinery, animals and other hazards often result in immediate and obvious injuries that are easily recognized. Noise that accompanies many farming tasks causes the more insidious onset of noise-induced hearing loss. Farming is ranked among the top occupations with the highest risk for hearing loss, mainly because of non-use of hearing protection devices. In the Mountain West region of the US, a 2013 US Department of Health and Human Services study suggests that noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is common among Spanish-speaking migrant agricultural workers due to their proximity to the noise produced by heavy farm equipment and livestock. While noise over-exposure is one of the largest hearing health hazards on the farm, the increased use of migrant workers as farmhands has greatly increased in the US. Over 3 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the US are usually not educated on the hazardous effects of farm noise and thus, are exposed to a hazard that they assume is nonexistent.
Who Are These Noise-Exposed Migrant Farm Workers?
The National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH) (2009) describes the population of individuals that harvest food and work the farms in the US as follows:
- Farmworkers in the United States are relatively young, with an average age of 33.
- 79% of migrant and seasonal farmworkers were male and 21% were female.
- 81% of farmworkers surveyed spoke Spanish and only 18% spoke English.
- 72% completed their education in Mexico, 13% percent completed grade three or less, 13% had completed the 12th grade.
- 42% of farmworkers surveyed were migrants, having traveled at least 75 miles within the previous year to obtain a farm job.
- Farmworkers worked an average of 42 hours per week.
- Farmworkers surveyed by NCFH had an average of 12 years in U.S. farm experience. 41% of farmworkers had worked more than 10 years in U.S. farm jobs.
- The average individual farmworker had an income range from $10,000 to $12,499 and the average total family income ranged from $15,000 to $17,499. 30% of all farmworkers had total family incomes below the U.S. government’s poverty guidelines.
As presented in Part I, every year thousands of these farmworkers suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels and research has demonstrated that those who live and work on farms have had significantly higher rates of hearing loss than the general population. The noise from tractors, forage harvesters, silage blowers, chain saws, skid-steer loaders, grain dryers, squealing pigs and guns are some of the most typical sources of noise on the farm. Studies suggest that lengthy exposure to these high sound levels have resulted in noise-induced hearing loss to all types of farmworkers of all age groups, including teenagers.
A Unique Program in Hearing Conservation
Dr. Mark Guiberson, University of Wyoming is working with industry professionals to reduce hearing loss among the region’s Spanish-speaking agricultural workers. Two studies, Pew Research Internal Survey and a Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, both conducted in 2014, demonstrate current trends in consumer patterns of digital and technology usage to obtain health information. The Pew research indicates that Hispanic/Latino populations are beginning to rely heavily on digital media over traditional print media for health information. Dr. Guiberson is testing the use of a digital graphic novella to educate these workers about noise-induced hearing loss. He says the agricultural workers rely heavily on digital media to obtain health information.
Dr. Guiberson and his research team (Dr. Emily Wakefield, an industrial audiologist with Associates in Audiology Inc. in Colorado; David Lauman, owner of 20/20 Translations in Denver, Colo., Sam Cooper, a graphic designer, and Karlee Heitman and Mikala McCool, both UW student research assistants) will first interview the workers to determine their level of knowledge of NIHL and attitudes toward wearing hearing protection devices, such as ear plugs or ear muffs. The team will then show them the digital graphic novella (presented in Spanish on an iPad), which depicts a conversation between agricultural workers named Jose and Diego. In the story, Diego explains to Jose how ear protection has helped preserve his hearing over the years despite working around noisy machinery all the time. Diego also talks about Luis, his father-in-law, who once was considered social, but withdrew after losing his hearing. “Because Luis never wore hearing protection, over time, all that exposure to noise caused hearing loss,” Diego says in the novella. “He became less social and didn’t tell any jokes or stories with his friends. He also didn’t always hear when others called his name.” The novella also includes dialogue and visuals on the proper way for agricultural workers to insert ear plugs to offer the best protection. Immediately after the workers view the digital graphic novella, Guiberson will interview them again, to determine what they learned. Target concepts include identifying what constitutes a loud noise; the effects of NIHL including social isolation, depression and increased risk of an accident at work; the debunking of myths regarding the use of hearing protection devices (not comfortable, won’t hear warning sounds/conversations); stressong that NIHL is permanent and irreversible, but preventable; and ways to prevent NIHL by limiting exposure to loud noise. “We want to see if their knowledge and beliefs have changed,” Guiberson says. “Hearing conservation resources delivered in Spanish through digital media may lead to significant improvement in the hearing health of Spanish-speaking agricultural workers.”
Hearing International will continue to monitor this interesting study and update with the results as it progresses.
National Center for Farm Worker Health, (2009). Migrant and seasonal farmworker health. Retrieved June 30, 2015: http://www.unctv.org/content/sites/default/files/0000011508-fs-Migrant%20Demographics.pdf
Richter, R., (2015). UW professor helps to prevent hearing loss in Spanish-speaking Ag workers. Wyoming. Sheridan Media.com: Retrieved June 22, 2015: http://www.sheridanmedia.com/category/news/Wyoming
U.S. Department of Labor (2015). Agricultural Operations: Noise. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Safety and Health Topics. Retrieved June 22, 2015: https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/agriculturaloperations/hazards_controls.html
University of Wyoming News, (2015). UW professor uses graphic novella to help hearing loss in Spanish speaking ag workers. Rtrieved June 30, 2015: http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/news/2015/06/uw-professor-uses-graphic-novella-to-help-prevent-hearing-loss-in-spanish-speaking-ag-workers.html
Bacon, D., ((2011). Cesar Chavez and the state of the farm workers movement. In these times. Retrieved June 30, 2015: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/7142/cesar_chavez_and_the_state_of_the_farm_workers_movement