It’s common to think of hearing loss as an inescapable problem connected with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s regular use of iPods. But the numbers suggest that the greater problem may be direct exposure to loud noise at work.
In the United States, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially destructive noise, and a projected 242 million dollars is spent yearly on worker’s compensation claims for hearing loss, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
What’s more is that higher rates of hearing loss are found in progressively noisier professions, revealing that exposure to sounds over a certain level steadily heightens your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in your life.
How loud is too loud?
A study carried out by Audicus revealed that, of those who were not exposed to occupational noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent struggled with noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In comparison, construction workers, who are consistently subjected to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, suffered with noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!
It seems that 85-90 decibels is the limit for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the whole story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That means that as you raise the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level nearly doubles. So 160 decibels is not twice as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!
Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is hardly detectable, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the threshold for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells takes place at 180 decibels. It’s the region between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be anticipated, the vocations with increasingly louder decibel levels have progressively higher rates of hearing loss.
Hearing loss by occupation
As the following table indicates, as the decibel levels connected with each occupation increase, hearing loss rates increase as well:
|Incidence rates of hearing loss at age 50
|No noise exposure
|Less than 90 decibels
Any profession with decibel levels above 90 places its workers at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In each instance, as the decibel level increases, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss skyrockets.
Protecting your hearing
A recent US study on the prevalence of hearing loss in farming discovered that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were exposed to unsafe noise levels, but that only 44 percent reported to use hearing protection equipment on a per day basis. Factory workers, in comparison, tend to stick to to stricter hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the frequency of hearing loss is moderately lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite being exposed to similar decibel levels.
All of the data point to one thing: the importance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk job, you need to take the right precautionary steps. If circumventing the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best achieved with custom earplugs), in addition to making sure that you take regular rest breaks for your ears. Reducing both the sound volume and exposure time will decrease your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.
If you would like to talk about a hearing protection plan for your personal circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide customized solutions to best protect your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to protecting your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can maintain the natural quality of sound (as opposed to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).