hearing loss & the workplace

Hearing Loss & the Workplace: Occupational Hearing Hazards

In Community, hearing loss, Prevention, Tinnitus by Laurie Duffy, M.S.

Occupational Hearing Hazards

When we think of workplace injury, we tend to think of broken bones or pulled muscles. Hearing loss certainly does not top the list!

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that annually, approximately 30 million people are exposed to hazardous noise at their jobs. Additionally, OSHA reports that noise-related hearing loss “has been listed as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the US for more than 25 years” and that every year, “thousands of workers suffer from preventable hearing loss due to workplace noise levels.”

How do we prevent hearing loss in the workplace?

Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss & Exposure to Loud Sounds

Every sound we experience in everyday life can be measured as a decibel. A normal conversation registers at 60 decibels, while live rock concerts are doubled at 120 decibels. Power tools range between 110 to 130 decibels. Hearing specialists believe that experiencing 8 hours of sounds that register over 85 decibels could potentially lead to permanent hearing loss. Even more, the longer the exposure to sounds over 85 decibels, the shorter amount of time it takes to permanently damage your hearing.

Here’s an example of 85 decibels: imagine a bulldozer that is idling at a construction site. It is not currently in operation, but the sound produced by the idle engine is already 85 decibels. Even if a construction worker does not actually operate the bulldozer, working in close proximity to it for more than 8 hours without hearing protection could lead to permanent hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs due to lengthy exposure to dangerous levels of sound, or in a one-time event (gun shot, fire cracker). Long-term exposure to loud noise in the workplace could eventually contribute to noise-induced hearing loss. In the short term, exposure to high volumes could lead to stress, reduced productivity, and other work-related accidents and injuries. Hearing loss may affect different areas of our lives, from limiting social interaction to increasing the risk of depression and dementia.

Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent. Exposure to loud sounds damage inner ear hair cells, which are responsible for translating sound into neural signals registered by the brain as sound. When inner ear hair cells die, they do not regenerate. While there is no cure for noise induced hearing loss, it is treatable with the prescription of hearing aids.

Noise on the Job

Many professions in diverse fields expose people to dangerous levels of noise. OSHA has issued regulations to maintain safe levels of noise in the workplace. Most employers in louder profession provide hearing protection, such as construction or airfield operation. If you work in a loud setting, it is important to follow regulations regarding hearing protection – even if you don’t think you’re being affected.

After all, noises on the job may become monotonous and a regular part of our work day. The sounds of machines may become white noise and fade to the background. In 2012, a survey of factory workers revealed that while 75% of factory workers believed their hearing was normal, hearing tests revealed that 42% of them had some degree of hearing loss.

There is a concern that people in other professions that are not often thought of as loud are still exposed to dangerous levels of sound. For example, dentists and dental assistants tend to experience hearing loss and tinnitus. The high-frequency noise of tools and drills used in dentistry may lead to hearing loss. People who work in restaurants are also at risk for hearing damage. Between the loud music that provides ambience and the lively chatter for diners and the noise within an industrial kitchen, restaurant workers experience many layers of noise in a shift.

How to Protect Your Hearing at Work

The next time you are at work, pay attention to the sounds in your environment. Consider downloading an app for your smartphone that measures decibels in any given environment. If your employer has strict policy regarding hearing protection, adhere to these standards.

If you work in an environment without sound regulation, consider getting your own protection. Foam or silicon earplugs provide some protection, but the best option is custom ear protection. These plugs are made from molds of your ears and provide the best protection from dangerous levels of sound. Contact us at Hear Care Rhode Island for schedule an appointment for custom ear protection.

If your ears are ringing or humming when you leave work, if you have to shout to be heard by a coworker in close proximity, and if you experience tinnitus, you may be at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe levels of noise in the workplace. Consider taking an annual hearing test to make sure that your hearing health is at its best. For more information, contact us at Hear Care Rhode Island today!

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