Fishermen Wellness: Hearing
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
Hearing is one of the five basic human senses. We perceive sound through the turning of physical movements that produce cyclical pressure variations in the air (sound waves), into electrical signals that reach our brain and then translate those vibrations. Amazingly, the evolution of the design of the human ear can be traced back 370 million years to the development of a small bone (the spiracle) in the gill opening of a fish! We also rely on our ears to maintain our balance by equalizing the air pressure with that in the atmosphere.
Because of the complex mechanics that go into turning vibrations into sound, hearing loss is not an uncommon issue. In fact, by the age of 65 almost half of all people will have some degree of hearing loss. Congenital hearing loss is when you are born with some (or full) hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound waves can’t penetrate from one part of your ear to the other, usually because of some kind of blockage. Mixed hearing loss is when there’s a combination of conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss. I’m no otolaryngologist (ear doctor) but I imagine sensorineural hearing loss is pretty common among fishermen; it is hearing loss that occurs when the ear’s sensory cells and/or nerves are damaged or harmed (because of loud engines and what have you).
In fact, a 2018 study conducted by the University of Washington School of Public Health found that 80% of fishermen in Alaska that underwent a hearing screening demonstrated at least some degree of hearing loss. This can be compared to only 15% of people in the general American population who also have hearing deficits.
If you also hear ringing, buzzing, or clicking, this is tinnitus which is a symptom that usually accompanies hearing deficit. This is because we have tiny, delicate hairs in our inner ear (cochlea) that move in response to sound waves, which then trigger electrical signals that are sent to our brains. When these hairs get bent or broken as we age or are exposed to dangerously high noise levels, then they can “leak” random electrical impulses, resulting in the noise only you can hear.
As I mentioned, fishermen are at particular risk of hearing loss because of frequent exposure to loud noise, aging (the average age of a Maine fisherman is over 50), and possibly inherited factors or illnesses and infections. That being said, conductive hearing loss can be caused by a malformation of the ear, fluid in the ear due to colds or allergies, ear infections, or a perforated ear drum. Spending a lot of time on the water, especially during the colder months, can cause ear infections and if left untreated, can potentially cause conductive hearing loss.
I have hearing loss in both ears but more so in my left. I have mixed hearing loss caused by too many loud concerts, too many untreated ear infections (you get used to them after a while), and cholesteatoma. Cholesteatoma is basically an abnormal growth in the middle ear. Thanks to all these things, I also have tinnitus in both ears. So, as I said, I’m not a doctor but I do have an intimate understanding of dealing with hearing loss.
Every once in a while an initiative will pop up encouraging fishermen to do everything that they can to prevent hearing loss. While these are valuable initiatives, we’re not sure they take into consideration the realities of a fisherman’s life and business, nor do they offer solutions that support a fisherman who is already dealing with hearing loss. If a fisherman wears hearing protection on a boat, it’s not just the engine sound they muffle; they are also making it harder to hear the rest of the crew on the boat and that’s just not safe.
Here’s what we do know is really important to share with fishermen about hearing loss (that we learned from experience and from working with fishermen):
Hearing loss and tinnitus impact daily life and can cause increased anxiety, anger, and disturbed sleep. Constantly asking people to repeat themselves over and over all day can just get incredibly frustrating. Learning coping mechanisms can help.
Listening to music can help mitigate ringing.
Twenty minutes of rest (watching TV quietly, sitting in silence) can give your ears (and feet and joints) a breather. (Try putting the captions on the TV so you don’t have to turn it up so loud.)
Instead of saying “what?” over and over, try pointing to your ear. It’s been my experience that when you keep asking everyone to repeat everything, it gets annoying. But if you point to your ear people tend to more quickly understand that you are not being a dink, you just can’t hear them.
This sucks for fishermen because of their irregular schedules, but go to a doctor if you have pain in your ears, your hearing loss seems to be getting worse, or you think you are getting ear infections more frequently. While hearing loss and ear infections seem like something that you can manage, illnesses like cholesteatoma, if untreated, can start to impact your equilibrium, damage the bones in your ear, and even spread to your brain.
Consider your hearing when you sit down at a restaurant (or anywhere). Is it better if you sit on the left or right side of a booth so you can hear your buddies better? Get to know what restaurants are too loud (Looking at you and your 1000 TVs, Buffalo Wild Wings) and what restaurants are a bit more comfortable to hear in.
If you work with fishermen, or know fishermen, for the love of Pete look at them when you are speaking. Don’t look away or cover your mouth. Organize meeting rooms to allow for conversation or get a microphone so even those in the back can hear. (Again, as someone with hearing loss, when you say “what” and then the person with whom you are speaking repeats themselves and/or turns around… this is my biggest pet peeve in life.)
It’s totally OK to say, “I have hearing loss.” This is not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. It can be incredibly trying, tiring, and make you angry to have to manage hearing loss, but it doesn’t always have to be that way.
Learn more about hearing, noise, and vibrations on the
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association’s Fishermen Wellness Program is working with partners such as Sweetser, NAMI Maine, Mid Coast Health, Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health, and Fishing Partnership Support Services to offer resources, information, and opportunities for fishermen to manage their health in a way that is convenient and relevant to their lives and work.
FMI please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Together, we persevere.