The drip, drip, drip of a small leak is far easier to ignore than a gushing broken pipe, but left long enough the damage can be much greater. The same concept applies to farm safety and health. Most are well aware of the sudden, catastrophic-type risks, such as equipment rollovers and grain entrapment, but dismiss what seem like smaller risks. Foregoing masks, gloves, or hearing protection while going about farm business is all too common. But those seemingly small choices can circle back in a big way.

“One of the most devastating things I see is long-term chronic lung problems,” says Carolyn Sheridan, RN, BSN, and founder of Ag Health and Safety Alliance. Agriculture is rife with organic dust, she says. Dust containing feces, dander, and mold interacts with respiratory tissues causing tissue scarring. This can happen in acute one-off exposures as well as longer exposure over time. As the damage accumulates, lung function diminishes. “I just spoke to a hog and poultry farmer who at just 50 is struggling with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]. He struggles just to walk across the road,” Sheridan says. It’s tragic, and it’s avoidable.

This type of injury, much like hearing loss, is one that sneaks up over time. Suddenly the scale tips and the downhill slide begins.

“When you don’t perceive loss you feel safe that you’re not doing long-term damage, but you are,” Sheridan says. “And it’s so simple to prevent.”

Breathing deep. Air that looks clean, such as in a hog barn, may be full of microscopic organic dust. When working in barns and grain bins, loading grain, grinding feed, and so many other situations where organic dust is disturbed, it’s necessary to mask up.

But it must be the right mask. Slapping on a one-strap household dust mask is nearly useless. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requires a minimum of two straps to approve a mask.

“If it has two straps, it’s thick enough to trap dust, and it fits your face it should be good for many tasks involving dust and mold,” Sheridan says. “But if you’re dealing with a gas or vapor, large amounts of dust and mold, or mouse or bird feces, it’s better to move up to a respirator with a cartridge. If you feel symptoms of breathing in dust, you need a better mask.”

Ears, eyes, and skin should also be protected. Long-term exposure to hazards can eventually result in life-changing losses in quality of life.

This includes using clean masks. Once mask filters are saturated, they are no longer effective. Keep a supply of new, clean, NIOSH-approved masks on hand to protect all family members. Those with smaller faces may have to hunt a bit to find a snug-fitting mask that will fully protect them.

The same is true of safety glasses. Each individual should try on multiple pairs to get a good fit.

“If you can slide your finger underneath or along the side, that means something can get through,” Sheridan says. Also look for safety ratings for impact, splash, particulates, and more. When dealing with certain chemicals, it may be necessary to use goggles.

“You need to read the labels on the chemicals you’re working with ahead of doing the work. They will tell you what you need,” Sheridan says.

For hearing, she says the best protection is any you’ll actually consistently wear. Hearing loss is a function of time and noise level. A chainsaw at 115 dB can cause permanent hearing damage in less than a minute while it takes 95 minutes of an auger at 92 dB to cause damage. “There are sound meter apps you can get for your phone to help  identify when you need hearing protection or know when to give your ears a break to recover,” she says.

Protecting futures. In her time as a nurse working in a rural hospital in Northwest Iowa and doing advanced training at the University of Iowa in agricultural medicine, Sheridan saw too many preventable long-term exposure illnesses. These experiences led her to found the Ag Health and Safety Allianceand their program Gear Up For Ag Health and Safety.

This program helps ag students identify their individual hazards and how to protect against them. “We’re hoping to change behaviors for the next generation to head off long-term chronic problems,” Sheridan says.

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