Science & Technology

Horsepower vs. Hearing

rural noise graphic

Tractor image, Shutterstock; all other images, IStock; photo illustration by Nancy Rinehart

Growing up on a dairy farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin, Melanie Buhr-Lawler ’00 heard her dad’s tractors and other loud equipment every day. Now, as a clinical associate professor of audiology at UW–Madison, she promotes hearing conservation to those with little to no information about these noisy risks.

melanie buhr-lawler

Melanie Buhr-Lawler says her father, a farmer, told her a tractor pull would be the ideal place to educate people about the dangers of rural noise. Sarah Morton

Most rural residents over age forty experience substantial hearing impairment, studies have found. On a farm, tractors and other heavy equipment each can exceed one hundred decibels or higher — enough to cause permanent hearing damage after fifteen minutes of exposure. Yet, the federal occupational health and safety regulations that protect employees in noisy urban work settings don’t cover farmers.

To raise awareness, Buhr- Lawler and students from the UW’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders attend the Tomah Tractor Pull, an annual Wisconsin event that draws sixty thousand spectators. They talk about options to protect hearing and offer free earplugs to block out the deafening roar of turbocharged, three-thousand-horsepower machines.

“A tractor pull is one of the loudest places on earth — as loud as a jet plane at takeoff,” says Buhr-Lawler.

The project, funded by a Statewide Outreach Incentive Grant from the UW, aims to create a model program that can be used at other loud events in rural areas.

When she started the effort three years ago, Buhr-Lawler felt some trepidation about passing out earplugs to a crowd that was clearly up for some noise. “We wanted to be a positive force, not the university coming in to ‘nag’ everyone,” she says.

But the crowds have welcomed her with open ears: so far, her team has passed out thousands of earplugs.

Published in the Summer 2016 issue


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