It’s hard to imagine living a muffled life when you’ve never experienced it for yourself.
For those with hearing loss, it can be a challenge to manage the issue. Many learn to read lips and facial expressions, piece together scattered parts of a conversation and ask others to repeat themselves when things seem altogether incoherent.
Many farmers experience some form of mid-range hearing loss after years of being around loud machinery.
However, few realize their hearing is gradually declining until it’s too late.
For Kelley Donham, professor emeritus in agricultural medicine at the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, he noticed his noise-induced hearing loss in his early 30s after years of working on farms.
“I started to have this ringing in my ears,” he says, referring to the tinnitus he developed.
“What I know now from research is I’m not alone having noise-induced hearing loss,” Donham says. “It’s one of the most common physical disabilities we have in agriculture.”
Jennifer Reekers, an audiologist for Heartland Hearing Center in Cedar Rapids, says tinnitus is basically “any sound you hear that’s not present in your environment.”
Diana Kain, also an audiologist at Heartland Hearing Center, says nearly half the patients she sees at Heartland have a farming background, and growing up in a farming family has helped her understand the effects agriculture can have on hearing.
Research has shown approximately 75 percent of people working in agriculture have some form of hearing impairment, she says, with 25 percent of those age 30 or younger.
Hearing loss at work
Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable, Reekers says.
But for some, like Roger Stutsman, hearing loss is unavoidable.
“It’s always embarrassed me for some crazy reason,” says Stutsman, of Stutsman Farms near Riverside.
His genetic hearing loss was diagnosed when he was 5 years old. Today, he has moderate hearing loss and wears hearing aids to help with everyday conversation.
He doesn’t wear them while working on the farm because they are too expensive to risk possible damage, and he doesn’t want amplified noise from wind constantly in his ears.
Technological advances have come a long way in the audiology world, with hearing aids constantly improving. But to Donham, hearing aids are still “less than perfect.”
When working on the farm, they don’t always cut down on background noise or reduce the risk of accident or injury if the wrong sounds are amplified.
“They’re not necessarily highly functional in noisy environments,” Donham says.
Kain recommends farmers remove hearing aids while working and always wear some form of hearing protection.
But without hearing aids, Stutsman says not being able to hear clearly on his farm can be nerve-wracking.
“There’s always a worry that I’m missing something,” Stutsman says. “That’s probably my biggest fear, that something will happen that I didn’t hear coming.”
For instance, one of the first signs of a malfunctioning machine might be an abnormal sound, but if the farmer can’t hear these warning signs or others yelling to bring attention to a problem, he or she could potentially put themselves or others in a dangerous situation.
“It’s a safety hazard,” says Donham. “It puts a person at risk for injury.”
Stutsman says the biggest challenge is making farmers understand how their farming practices will cause them to lose their hearing over time. He says the noise level working in agriculture is similar to being at a concert every day.
Hearing loss isn’t necessarily an issue of volume, but of clarity.
Donham says there can be several social issues that come with hearing loss, such as not wanting to go to loud public areas and less interaction with others because it’s a struggle to hear properly.
“It’s not that you can’t hear, it’s that you can’t understand,” he says.
There is usually a problem with certain vowel sounds and frequencies.
“There’s some voices I can hear pretty well,” agrees Stutsman, “and some voices I can’t hear a thing.”
Hearing loss can also affect brain function with older adults.
According to a recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging, while a person’s brain normally becomes a bit smaller as he or she gets older, hearing loss can accelerate this.
Some serious conditions that have been linked with prolonged hearing loss include dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Kain and Reekers say falls can occur because damage to the inner ear can impact a person’s sense of balance.
Another issue is daily fatigue, which occurs because the brain has to work harder to process speech and sound.
“The brain is trying to fill in missing information with what (it isn’t) hearing,” she says.
When asked what their key advice would be for farmers, Kain and Reekers both said the same thing: “Wear hearing protection.”
“It’s that simple,” says Reekers. “Really, all you can do is protect the hearing you have.”
“Reduce noise exposure, even if the damage is already done,” Donham advises. “It can help save what you have left.”
He says kids are also at risk in the same noisy environment when growing up on a farm, adding it’s parental responsibility to ensure they have proper hearing protection for their children.
“We need to encourage protection at an early age,” he says.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an eight-hour shift at a workplace with noise levels meeting or exceeding 85 dB would legally require employees to wear ear protection by Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) standards.
However, for those who work on their own farms, it’s the responsibility of the individual to protect hearing.
Donham says many sound exposures in agriculture easily exceed 85 dB, and 90 dB can cause noise-induced hearing loss after only a few hours.
To put it in perspective, Donham says a tractor without a cab runs between 85 to 90 dB, and a tractor with a cab typically runs at less than 85 dB — provided all seals are working properly to reduce noise. Grain dryers, chainsaws and sow buildings (especially at feeding time) can exceed 100 dB.
For grain dryers, Donham says “one of the most important things you can do is just back away” while it’s running to minimize exposure.
Kain says the general rule regarding decibels is for every 5 dB increase, the exposure time should be cut in half. For instance, if 85 dB is acceptable to be exposed to for eight hours, then 90 dB would only be permissible for four hours.
Donham says using personal protection equipment (PPE) for hearing can reduce the noise impact by as much as 25 dB, but it needs to be easily accessible and located in convenient places or people are less likely to use them altogether. This could mean storing PPE such as ear plugs in tractors, sheds and any location where noise can be an issue.
“The main thing is to wear them properly and make sure there is a good seal,” he says.
Donham says besides PPE, repairing noisy machines to run quieter (such as fixing seals) can be a significant benefit, especially for older machines.
“Good machine repair is one of the things that can be very helpful,” he says.
Stutsman says safety has become a higher concern these days in the United States with more laws and regulations in place, but hearing protection is rarely thought of on most farms because it’s seen as inconvenient.
“The odds of walking up on a farmer with hearing protection is pretty slim,” he says. “It’s a nuisance (farmers) just don’t deal with.”
Reekers and Kain recommend annual hearing tests for anyone age 50 or older, or sooner if hearing becomes an issue. They say most people wait 5 to ten years before seeking help.
“It’s better to do something sooner rather than later,” says Reekers. She says depriving the brain of auditory stimulation can lead to poor cognitive function and waiting on treatment can make it harder for the brain to adapt later on.
“Protect the hearing that you have and make it part of your routine care,” she says.