It’s common to think of hearing loss as an inevitable problem associated with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s routine use of iPods. But the numbers show that the larger problem may be direct exposure to loud noise at work.
In the United States, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially destructive noise, and an estimated 242 million dollars is expended on a yearly basis 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 increasingly noisier professions, suggesting that exposure to sounds over a certain level steadily enhances your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.
How loud is too loud?
A study conducted by Audicus discovered that, of those who were not subjected to work-related noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent struggled with noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In comparison, construction workers, who are regularly subjected to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, struggled with noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!
It appears that 85-90 decibels is the limit for safe sound levels, but that’s not the full story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That signifies that as you increase the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level nearly doubles. So 160 decibels is not two times as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!
Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is scarcely perceptible, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the threshold for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing tissue takes place at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be predicted, the jobs with increasingly louder decibel levels have steadily higher rates of hearing loss.
Hearing loss by occupation
As the following table demonstrates, as the decibel levels associated 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 workforce at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In every case, as the decibel level increases, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss rises with it.
Protecting your hearing
A recent US study on the frequency of hearing loss in farming discovered that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were exposed to hazardous noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection devices on a day-to-day basis. Factory workers, in comparison, tend to adhere to stricter hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is moderately lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite exposure 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 occupation, you need to take the right preventative steps. If circumventing the noise is not an option, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best achieved with custom earplugs), in addition to ensuring that you take consistent rest breaks for your ears. Reducing both the sound volume and exposure time will lessen your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.
If you would like to discuss a hearing protection plan for your unique situation or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide tailor-made 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 preserve the natural quality of sound (in contrast to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).