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Experts Urge Farmers to Protect Hearing

by Alexandra Kilpatrick

Even away from the noisy chaos of cities, farmers experience hearing damage every day from a myriad of sounds: hog squeals, tractor roars and grain dryers during the autumn harvest.

About one-third of the nation’s three million farmers experience some level of hearing damage. Noise-induced hearing loss can affect farmers at any age, especially if they fail to protect their hearing.

Noise Everywhere

“You just can’t get away from the machinery,” said Tom Duerst, a 55-year-old Wisconsin dairy farmer with partial hearing loss caused by farm noises he was exposed to in his youth, according to the Upper Michigan Source. “We’re driving those tractors and they’re so goddamn loud.”

Since only the largest United States farms operate under federal workplace safety regulations, many farmers need to recognize their elevated risk of hearing loss on their own.

Bringing the Dangers to the Surface

Although researchers discovered the risks of farm noise decades ago, nonprofit organizations, university researchers and federal agencies only recently focused on educating farmers and their children on how to avoid hearing loss by wearing sound-cuffing earmuffs or ear plugs.

Farm machinery designers have redesigned equipment like tractors to run quieter. However, many farmers still use older, noisier models and livestock, like hogs and chickens, packed into barns produce the same cacophony of noises as always.

Farm extension service educators urge farmers to protect their hearing by highlighting disturbing noise impact facts at trade shows and conventions, while 4-H programs and Future Farmers of America chapters use online resources to nudge workers to wear ear muffs or plugs.

“Sometimes you’ll get a piece of equipment that’s louder than it ought to be,” 63-year-old grain farmer Charles Schmitt told Upper Michigan Source. “It’s a blast compared to what most people are used to. When it’s loud we either stay a little farther away or add to our hearing protection.”

Research Spurs Change

Although federal workplace safety rules took effect in the United States in the 1970s and led to improvements in the hearing of the general adult population, the threat of hearing damage to farmers only became apparent to the national public in the past five years, according to Gordon Hughes, director of clinical programs for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

A 2006 study showed that 2,700 male farmers, mostly from Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, had experienced noticeably higher levels of hearing damage between ages 20 and 60 than people who do not work in loud environments.

The study’s co-author James Lankford, former professor of audiology at Northern Illinois University, comments that when the subjects’ sons watched the tests, they were shocked by the degree of the farmers’ hearing damage.

“The younger farmers, the ones who were going to take over the farm, realized how significant a hearing loss they could face by working without ear protections,” Lankford told Upper Michigan Source. “It was really enlightening for them.”

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