Grounds for Change: Reducing Noise Exposure in Grounds Management Professionals – Part 1Posted on by
While the dog days of summer mean slowing down for some people, sunshine brings the busy season for those in the grounds management professions, which includes landscaping, tree care and horticulture. This summer work means breaking out tools that can create loud noise: lawn mowers, edgers, chainsaws, chippers — just to name a few. This noise is more than just an annoyance, it can create long-term health effects including hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and even cardiovascular issues [Babisch 2011; Kerns et al. 2018]. This two-part blog series provides basic information for grounds management professions about how to identify dangerous levels of noise exposure and what to do to protect themselves and others from the harmful effects of noise.
What’s the problem?
Chronic noise exposure can lead to tinnitus and/or hearing loss. These effects are sometimes experienced as a temporary response after a period of loud noise. Many people have come home from a concert or other loud event with muffled hearing and their ears ringing, only to wake up the next morning feeling back to normal. These symptoms, while temporary, are an indication that damage is occurring inside the ear. Repeated loud noise exposure over weeks, months or years can eventually lead to permanent damage. For landscapers, or other grounds management professionals, who are regularly using noisy tools on the job, the tinnitus may become constant. The effects of living with chronic tinnitus can range from annoying to completely debilitating. Repeated noise exposure can also lead to permanent hearing loss. Hearing loss has lifelong effects which can include difficulty communicating, increased risk of injury on the job, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression [Arlinger 2003].
Who is affected?
An estimated 912,360 people in the U.S. are employed as landscapers or groundskeepers, with another 100,320 employed as first-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service and grounds keeping workers [BLS 2017]. For these people who regularly use tools that create hazardous noise, hearing loss can be a real concern. Landscapers and groundskeepers are not alone; each year approximately 22 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to potentially damaging noise [Kerns et al. 2018]. Hearing loss is considered one of the most common occupational injuries in the United States, and carries high personal and societal cost and yet it is preventable.
What is a safe level of noise?
Sound level is measured in decibels (dB). Workplace sound levels are usually “A-weighted” (dBA), which takes into account the sensitivity of the human ear. A whisper is about 30 dBA, a normal conversation is about 60 dBA, and a jackhammer is about 130 dBA. Noise is considered hazardous when it is 85 dBA or above [NIOSH 1998]. If you must raise your voice when talking to someone about 3 feet away, the noise level is probably at least 85 dBA. You can download a sound measurement app to your smartphone to check noise levels, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App.
How loud are noise levels in the grounds management industry?
A recent study by Balanay et al.  looked at noise exposure among university groundskeepers. They measured the sound levels of several common landscaping tools and found that many produced a maximum level higher than 85 dBA. Table 1 shows some of the tools and levels they measured; the ranges are from different models of the same type of equipment.
|Tool||Noise Level (dBA)|
Table 1. Tool maximum levels by type from Balanay et al. .
Operating tools that are louder than 85 dBA can make communicating on the job difficult and create a safety hazard. Repeated exposure to loud noise can create lifelong health issues. Negative effects of noise exposure are preventable if you know how and when to implement effective noise reduction strategies. It is important for those operating loud tools, and their managers, to be aware of these health risks, and potential solutions. Explore the NIOSH noise and hearing loss page to learn more about hazardous noise levels and your health. Check back next week for Part 2 of this series to learn strategies to reduce your noise exposure.
Jackie DiFrancesco BA, COHC, is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut and a summer fellow in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.
Asha Brogan is an ORISE fellow in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.
Bryan Beamer PhD, PE, CSP, is a research engineer in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.
Arlinger S . Negative consequences of uncorrected hearing loss-a review. Int J Audiol 42: 2S17-2S20.
Balanay JA, Kearney GD, Mannarino AJ . Assessment of occupational noise exposure among groundskeepers in North Carolina public universities. Environ Health Insights 10:EHI-S39682, https://doi.org/10.4137/EHI.S39682.
Babisch W . Cardiovascular effects of noise. Noise Health 13(52):201-204.
BLS . May 2017 National occupational employment and wage estimates United States. In: Occupational Employment Statistics. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm.
Kerns E, Masterson E, Themann C, Calvert G . Cardiovascular conditions, hearing difficulty, and occupational noise exposure within US industries and occupations. Am J Ind Med 61(6), 477-491.
NIOSH . National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Noise Exposure, revised criteria. Cincinnati, OH: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication 98-126.