Horsepower vs hearing:
UW-Madison audiology takes on rural noise

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Thunder rumbled over the grandstands at last summer’s annual Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck and Tractor Pull (aka the Tomah Tractor Pull), but the deafening roar of turbo-charged, 3,000-horsepower machines easily drowned it out. As the ground shook with noise (click to listen), five University of Wisconsin-Madison audiology students and two professors saw their supply of 2,000 complimentary earplugs vanish faster than cheese curds at the snack tent.

“When people learned we were giving out free earplugs, they were very excited,” says Clinical Associate Professor of Audiology Melanie Buhr-Lawler, who led the first-ever hearing conservation outreach project, funded by a Statewide Outreach Incentive grant, at the event last June. “A tractor pull is one of the loudest places on earth – as loud as a jet plane at takeoff. If you attended the entire four-day event, you would be at significant risk for hearing loss.”

Clinical Associate Professor Melanie Buhr-Lawler holds a pair of foam earplugs. Buhr-Lawler, her colleague, Clinical Associate Professor Amy Kroll, and five Audiology students handed out earplugs just like these at the Tomah Tractor Pull last summer. Clinical Associate Professor Melanie Buhr-Lawler holds a pair of foam earplugs. Buhr-Lawler, her colleague, Clinical Associate Professor Amy Kroll, and five Audiology students handed out earplugs just like these at the Tomah Tractor Pull last summer. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

Buhr-Lawler and her colleague, Clinical Associate Professor Amy Kroll, work in the College of Letters & Science’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, a nationally-acclaimed program where faculty prepare graduate students for clinical careers in speech pathology and audiology through outreach in Wisconsin and beyond. Buhr-Lawler focuses on what she calls an “under-the-radar” problem: rural noise.

While many people think of the country as quiet, hearing loss is a major problem for farmers and others who live, work, and recreate in rural areas, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Studies have revealed substantial hearing impairment in most rural residents over age 40.

On a farm, tractors, combines, grain dryers, chainsaws, and woodshops can, individually, exceed 100 decibels or higher—enough to cause permanent hearing damage after 15 minutes of exposure, according to NIOSH. But, although farming ranks among the top three occupations with the highest risk for hearing loss, farmers are not regulated by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration like workers in similarly noisy urban work environments.

That’s why Buhr-Lawler and her students will be back at the Tomah Tractor Pull this June for the 40th anniversary of the popular event, reaching out to attendees (not all of them farmers, of course) with free earplugs and a message: “Major horsepower can cause major hearing loss!”

UW-Madison associate audiology professor Melanie Buhr-Lawler says it's especially important to protect children's hearing in noisy settings. UW-Madison associate audiology professor Melanie Buhr-Lawler says it's especially important to protect children's hearing in noisy settings. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

Many of the pull’s attendees will go home to work with noisy machinery on farms, in machine shops, or in other settings, says Lawler.

“We want to do two things: provide immediate assistance to protect hearing at the event, and send people home with some good information that will have a lasting impact,” she says.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Viroqua, Wis., Buhr-Lawler heard her dad’s tractors and other loud equipment every day. Now, as an audiologist, she wants to promote hearing conservation in a population that receives little to no information about the risks. Heading to Tomah was actually her dad’s idea.

“I was trying to think of the best ways my students and I could reach out to this population, and my dad suggested the Tomah Tractor Pull,” she says with a smile. “He said it’s a great place to find the people who need this information the most, all in one place.”

"We want to do two things: provide immediate assistance to protect hearing at the event, and send people home with some good information that will have a lasting impact."
— Melanie Buhr-Lawler

Billed as “the heaviest motorsport on wheels,” the Tomah Tractor Pull draws 60,000 fans and tourists. Many families bring children and munch cotton candy and bratwursts while cheering on their favorite “pull classes,” from 4x4 trucks to modified farm tractors to “super semis.”

Initially, Buhr-Lawler felt some trepidation about passing out earplugs to a crowd that was clearly up for some noise.

Audiology students and professors at the Tomah Tractor Pull last June. Audiology students and professors at the Tomah Tractor Pull last June.

“We wanted to be a positive force, not the university coming in to ‘nag’ everyone,” she says. “But our students were friendly and not pushy, and I think overall it was really fun and good for everybody who attended.”

Shae Fox, operations manager for the Monroe County Agricultural Society, agrees. Fox helps organize the tractor pull and says noise is a concern for many attendees.

“We’ve had lots of people posting on our Facebook page about it,” she says. “When [Buhr-Lawler] contacted me about her project, I thought it was a great thing to offer people.”

Buhr-Lawler and her team ran out of free earplugs before the end of the second event. Then they took some noise readings at the “light class” event and recorded 109 decibels, well over the limit for safe exposure. The “heavy class” events, featuring super semis and modified tractors, are much louder.

“People who work with farm machinery or other kinds of machinery also tend to recreate in settings that put their hearing at risk, such as hunting and tractor pulls,” Buhr-Lawler says. “We want to make sure they have all the information they need to protect something they might not fully appreciate until it’s gone—their hearing.”

Fox is already looking forward to the students’ next visit this June.

“I’m hoping they bring Bucky,” she says.

While many people think of the country as quiet, hearing loss is a major problem for farmers and others who live, work, and recreate in rural areas. Growing up on the family farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin and hearing loud farm equipment every day inspired Buhr-Lawler to combat the The family dairy farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin where Buhr-Lawler grew up. Hearing loud farm equipment every day inspired her to address the "under-the-radar" problem of rural noise and hearing loss. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)