After a lifetime of operating tractors and working around roaring agricultural machines in Traer, Iowa, farmer Robert Higgins realized in middle age that his hearing had deteriorated.
“My wife would complain that I wasn’t hearing things,” he said. “It was usually the higher ranges that I couldn’t hear.”
Now 82 and semi-retired, he wears hearing protection when he’s around noisy equipment such as tractors, combines, chainsaws, grain dryers, and even lawn mowers.
“I try to preserve what I’ve got,” said Higgins, who still helps his son-in-law on the 950-acre farm that’s been in his family for 160 years. To compensate for his hearing loss, he must now wear hearing aids when he attends meetings or is engaged in conversations.
Though modern tractors and combines—with enclosed, sound-insulated cabs—have made farming considerably quieter, it wasn’t always so.
“There wasn’t much concern about hearing protection in my early years on the farm,” Higgins said. “Mostly, we ignored it and let our ears ring.”
That ringing, said audiologist Bruce L. Plakke, is a warning signal: “If you notice ringing in your ears, then you’re over-exposed to noise.”
Plakke, a hearing science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, has seen countless cases like Higgins’ in which farmers—and others in noisy work environments—experience hearing losses after repeated exposure.
“In the beginning, the hearing loss is temporary, but repeated exposure makes it permanent,” he said. “In most cases, you lose it slowly over time; then you suddenly realize it’s gone.”
He said workers in three noise-producing occupations are particularly likely to experience hearing loss—farmers, truck drivers, and people who shoot guns. Interestingly, all three are characterized by a greater degree of left-ear hearing loss. The left-ear damage for farmers stems from the tendency to look over their right shoulder when watching equipment being pulled behind a tractor, thus exposing the left ear to more of the engine noise. Similarly, truck drivers who frequently roll down their left window, exposing that ear to exhaust noise. And right-handed rifle and shotgun marksmen have their left ear forward, toward the gun’s muzzle.
Many older tractors without cabs are still used on farms to pull grain carts during harvest, to transport equipment around the farm, or to power augers that move harvested grain into storage bins. They can expose operators to sound levels up to 110 decibels, well above the safe 75 to 80 decibel levels found in tractors with cabs.
A study conducted by Plakke several years ago found that farmers had increasingly higher failure rates in hearing tests as they age. By age 30, 10 percent had detectable hearing loss. Ten years later, the loss grew to 30 percent, with loss rates as high as 50 percent at age 50. Other research indicates that nearly three-quarters of farmers have some degree of hearing loss.
James Lankford, a retired audiology professor at Northern Illinois University, educates famers on the need to protect their hearing with sound-cutting earmuffs or earplugs. Lankford said that when he’s performed hearing tests on older farmers in the presence of their farming sons, the younger agrarians were stunned.
“They realized how significant a hearing loss they could face by working without ear protection,” he said. “It was really enlightening for them.”