Any workplace with a noise level above 85 decibels is required by federal regulators to establish a hearing protection program.
It gets a lot louder than that at Tomah Recreation Park during tractor pull weekend.
To promote safe hearing practices, the audiology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison traveled to the Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull Friday to hand out ear protection and raise awareness of sustained exposure to loud noises. The outreach is led by Dr. Melanie Buhr-Lawler, an audiologist and clinical associate professor at the university’s department of communications sciences and disorders.
“I’m really committed to outreach,” Buhr-Lawler said. “I’m really committed to bringing our message to the community.”
Tractors aren’t new to Buhr-Lawler. She grew up on a farm in rural Viroqua and got the idea of coming to Tomah from her father, Paul Buhr. She said many tractor pull fans are farmers who deal with noise issues in their daily work lives.
“I really wanted to do something for farmers − the people I grew up around,” she said. “I wanted to promote the hearing protection message in a positive way.”
Tractor pulls are noted for noise generated by the big rigs − up to 125 decibels. Buhr-Lawler estimates fans in the front viewing area without ear protection exceed the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s workplace regulations in less than one hour. For fans in the grandstand, it’s two hours.
Four of Buhr-Lawler’s graduate students fanned out across Recreation Park to offer free earplugs. Mallory Schroeder said fans are polite but not all of them recognize the threat of sustained exposure to high decibel levels.
“I get a lot of different answers,” Schroeder said. “There are people who are excited and people who haven’t thought about it.”
Even people who acknowledge the noise levels often underestimate how quickly elevated decibel levels can damage hearing, said Danielle Jorgenson.
“People think it’s just a one-day event, but even one day of these decibel levels can cause hearing damage,” Jorgenson said.
She said very few people refuse the ear protection.
“We’re giving away something for free, so they take them,” Jorgenson said. “I know a lot of people use them, which is great.”
It’s the fifth year that the audiology department has distributed ear protection in Tomah, and Buhr-Lawler said her department has a good relationship with the Monroe County Agricultural Society, which sponsors the pull.
“I think they were wondering what in the world my angle is, but then they were very welcoming once we talked and they understood why we were here,” she said. “After the first year, they knew we weren’t here to point fingers or make people feel bad.”
Buhr-Lawler wants people to keep coming to the tractor pull and enjoy the weekend.
“We’re just here to be friendly and positive and encourage people to have fun and protect their ears at the same time,” she said.