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Healthy ears

It's no secret why farmers suffer a high rate of noise-induced hearing loss. “They don't use hearing protection enough to be effective,” says Marjorie McCullagh, University of Michigan assistant professor. “Why don't they wear it?” she asks.

For the past decade, McCullagh, who is the director of occupational health nursing, has taken this question to farmers at trade shows and meetings. She's received an earful about cost and convenience.

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But she's not buying it. “Earplugs are sold in bulk quantities for 10¢ a pair,” she says. She also knows it's easier than ever to keep hearing protection at your fingertips. “Farmers can hang earplugs around their neck until needed or attach them to a belt or button,” she says.

Furthermore, McCullagh has met many faithful believers. “Farmers who do protect their ears have told me a variety of strategies they use to wear them when needed,” McCullagh says. “I want to find out why a majority of farmers still have barriers to changing this behavior.”

One factor may be a belief that hearing loss is a natural part of aging. But noise-induced loss is the result of damage. Hair cells in the ear conduct sound waves into nerve impulses. Like field crops, if you drive over them regularly, the damage is permanent. You can't reseed your ear.

The louder the noise and greater the exposure, the higher the level of hearing loss. Recent studies indicate that farmers with hearing loss are more vulnerable to livestock injuries or other safety-related incidents.

“I'm often asked about the best type of hearing protection,” McCullagh says. “My response is that it's whatever kind you'll use.”

This choice may be based on:

● Noise type (intermittent or continuous).

● Environment (grease and dirt).

● Communication with coworkers and the need to hear equipment sounds.

Ear plug options

Formable plugs are one option. The key is rolling them between the fingers before inserting. (Pull up or back on the tip of your ear, using the other hand to insert the plug.)

“If you don't roll these plugs, ridges allow sound to penetrate. They get dirty but clean up easily. Many pairs have survived a load of wash,” McCullagh says.

“If you notice a change in the sponginess and they're harder to insert, throw them away,” she says.

Premolded plugs are a popular option. If you wear glasses or a hat, factor the fit into wearing earmuffs or a helmet.

“Farmers are involved in such a variety of jobs, they're likely to need more than one type of hearing protection,” McCullagh says. “We hope to learn about ear protection preferences by gender, age, size of operation, and type of farm. It's likely that no one kind fits all.”

McCullagh is recruiting farmers for a study to test the effectiveness of various approaches to ear protection.

She knows that farmers base critical business decisions on information. “But information doesn't necessarily translate into health and safety behavior changes,” she says.

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