Your local librarian may be on to something. Occupational hearing loss is a common work hazard. Audiologist Sharon Sandridge, PhD, pumps up the volume on occupational hearing loss and shares tips for protecting yourself.
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Understanding noise-induced hearing loss
About 22 million workers are exposed to dangerous noise levels each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “What matters is the level of noise and how long your exposure lasts,” Dr. Sandridge explains.
“It’s like aspirin. There is a maximum dosage, and it accumulates,” she says. “Even if you are in and out of sounds, very intense sounds fatigue the ear faster.”
There are two ways you can hurt your ears:
- One-time exposure to an intense sound: Similar to damaging your car in a crash, the harm is immediate. This type of hearing loss occurs when you are exposed to extremely loud noises, even for a short period, such as shooting a firearm. (It only takes one gunshot to do permanent damage.) If you were exposed to loud noises and notice any changes in your hearing, talk to your primary care physician.
- Repeated exposure to loud sounds: This is like neglecting your car for years, and one day it just won’t start. When you experience repeated damage to your hearing over time, it can eventually lead to hearing loss that will impact your quality of life.
Some hearing math:
- Noisy: Exposure to noise measured at or above 85 decibels (dB) for more than eight hours is considered hazardous.
- Really noisy: For every additional 3 dB, cut the exposure time in half. 100 dB causes hearing damage after just 15 minutes. If you listen to 100 dB for 10 minutes, you only have five minutes at that level left for the day before you damage your ears.
To put these numbers in context (“What is 85 dB? My toddler shrieking for a snack?”), take a look at these common sources of noise and their general decibel levels:
- 95 dB.
- Hearing damage after 50 minutes.
- 105-110 dB.
- Hearing loss in less than five minutes.
- 140-150 dB.
- Immediate hearing damage.
Eight jobs connected to occupational hearing loss
Factory workers: According to the CDC, almost half of all people in manufacturing have been exposed to hazardous noise levels. “Factory noise is the No. 1 cause of occupational hearing loss,” says Dr. Sandridge. But she also notes that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has regulations in place to protect factory workers.
Entertainment venue employees: Every time fans “make some noise,” they put their ears at risk. Who knew there was a dark side to rooting for the home team? Stadiums or arenas with closed roofs or domes are especially dangerous since sound can’t escape.
Musicians: It’s not all about that bass, either. “If you play in an orchestra, you practice six to eight hours a day and perform for two to three hours a week,” explains Dr. Sandridge. “If your practice room is reverberant, you are at major risk.”
You don’t need to be a percussionist or electric guitarist to feel the effects. In a Cleveland Clinic pilot study, Dr. Sandridge’s team found that violinists reached their maximum weekly sound dose in just four days.
Farmers: Old McDonald should invest in earplugs to go with the farm. Research shows that almost 75% of farmers experience hearing loss as they get older. “They’re at significant risk when using tractors with open windows or without cabs,” notes Dr. Sandridge.
Dental workers: “Dentists who do a lot of drilling run the risk of having high-frequency hearing loss. The drill sound is intense, and they’re close to it,” says Dr. Sandridge. This results in high-frequency hearing loss, which impacts ability to hear the consonant sounds, such as s, t and v.
“Someone may say, ‘I want to go east,’ and you may hear, ‘I want to go eat.’ Your ability to understand what is being said is compromised.”
Construction workers: No matter what your role is, the sounds on the job site can be intense enough to do damage. Even finishing work has its perils: Dr. Sandridge measured tile-cutting at 136 dB. “It’s very quick, but it’s also very intense.”
So take care among the cacophony — whether you’re jackhammering, using an air gun or sipping coffee during a much-needed break.
Coaches and game officials: Shooting the starting gun at a track meet. Blowing a whistle to end a play. Sporting events aren’t all fun and games — especially when your ears are ringing.
Elementary school teachers and cafeteria workers: While young children learn to use their “inside voices,” school workers are exposed to a steady flow of loud and high-pitched sounds, especially at recess or lunch time.
Honorable mentions: Others at risk include surgeons who use medical drills, first responders and military personnel.
How to prevent hearing loss in the workplace
Dr. Sandridge says it’s never too late to protect your hearing or prevent further hearing damage:
- Wear hearing protection: “Wear properly fitted earplugs or earmuffs when needed,”says Dr. Sandridge. “Don’t use cotton. It’s ineffective and can get stuck in your ears, which causes other problems.” Dr. Sandridge also strongly recommends that children use earplugs when they’re first learning an instrument.
- Take more breaks: Reduce your noise exposure by regularly walking away from the sound source.
- See an audiologist: “Audiologists can assess your hearing and talk to you about your risk factors and options,” relates Dr. Sandridge. “They can also help you find earplugs that fit comfortably and are effective.”