Can You Hear Me Now?

December 6, 2013 06:24 PM

Up to 75% of farmers suffer from hearing loss

With high-tech machinery and practices, you would think that hearing loss wouldn’t be as much of an issue for farmers. But according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and research from several universities, as many as 75% of farmers experience noise-induced hearing loss.

"Among all work groups in the U.S., farmers rank among the highest in noise-induced hearing loss, perhaps second only to miners," says Marjorie McCullagh, the primary investigator in the "HEAR on the Farm" study at the University of Michigan.

How To prevent noise-induced hearing loss

1. Wear adequate hearing protection when exposed to loud noise at work or play.

2. Pay attention to the noises around you. When possible, turn down the volume.

3. Alternate a noisy activity with a quiet one to give your ears a rest.

Cab tractors help alleviate the problem, but not to the extent that most think. "There is a huge lag time between noise exposure and hearing loss, so a lot of people were exposed to noise many years ago when conditions weren’t as favorable as they are now," McCullagh explains. "Farmers under­estimate their noise exposure. They have many more sources of noise exposure then just tractors, and the effects are cumulative; they all count."

There are multiple sources of hearing loss, but noise induced is the most common. According to the Sight and Hearing Association of Minnesota, this type of hearing loss results from overexposure to noise for a period of time.

"That’s why it is insidious; people don’t know it’s happening until the problem is advanced," McCullagh says. Symptoms include loss of the quantity and the quality of sound. Understanding human speech is difficult because words become indistinct and people sound like they are mumbling. This type of hearing loss is particularly devastating because it’s irreversible, and hearing aids and surgery don’t help.

Noise exposure is linked to another problem called tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. "About 80% of people with noise-induced hearing loss also have tinnitus, so they not only have difficulty understanding speech, especially on the telephone or hearing the TV, but they also deal with the incessant chirping, ringing or other head noises that happen with it," McCullagh says.

Protection is cool. Two of the most interesting aspects of the study are the psychology behind why farmers don’t wear hearing protection and how to educate farmers to recognize noise hazards and take protective measures.

sound levels on farm
permissible noise

So what is the best type of hearing protection out there? "There is an old adage in the business," McCullagh says; "the best hearing protection is the one that you will wear. There are a lot of different types of hearing protectors on the market. Most farmers need to keep several types of hearing protection on hand, depending on what activity they are doing and for how long. It’s a highly individual choice; pick the one that is right for you," she says.

The accepted industry level of noise is 85 decibels; higher than that and you need hearing protection. However, McCullagh warns, those thresholds were based on a study of manufacturing workers who work five days a week and up to eight hours a day. "I don’t know any farmer who has that kind of hours," she says. Even at the 85 db(A) level, you can experience hearing loss.

"I always tell a farmer, ‘Whenever it is loud enough that you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing about an arm’s length away from you, it’s time to wear hearing protection’," McCullagh advises. 

You can e-mail Pam Fretwell at

The "HEAR on the Farm" study will continue through June 2014; results will be released shortly after. For more information on hearing loss in farmers, including interviews with Marjorie McCullagh, visit

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