Is your job affecting your hearing? Depending on your industry, it may be. Certain jobs may cause an increased risk of developing hearing loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), four million people spend their work day in an environment that exposes them to harmful decibel levels. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) estimates that more than 22 million Americans will be exposed to damaging levels of noise in their jobs each year.
Decibels are the unit of measurement for the level of sound. The higher the decibel level, the louder the sound. The decibel scale uses measurement units of 10. On the decibel scale, an increase of 10 means that a sound is 10 times more intense.
Consider these statistics from the CDC:
- Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in adults
- Around 12 percent of ALL U.S. workers have difficulty hearing
- Around 24 percent of the hearing loss in these workers is caused by job exposures (5,280,000 people)
- About 8 percent have tinnitus (ringing in the ears) (1,760,000)
And 4 percent have both hearing difficulty and tinnitus (880,000)
How loud is too loud?
Long-term exposure to harmful noise levels is often thought of when we think of job-related hearing loss. Occupational hearing loss does occur with long-term noise levels. However, it can develop from a number of factors:
- A single instance of high decibel noise exposure
- Exposure to ototoxic chemicals (chemicals that are toxic to your ears and hearing anatomy that permanently damage your hearing)
- Solvents (styrene, trichloroethylene, toluene)
- Metals and compounds (mercury compounds, lead, organic tin compounds)
- Asphyxiants (carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide)
- Nitriles (3-Butenenitrile, cis-2-pentenenitrile, acrylonitrile)
- Pharmaceuticals (certain antineoplastic agents) – these put you more at risk for hearing loss
Sounds at or below 70 dBA are generally considered safe. Sounds at or above 85 dBA are more likely to damage your hearing, especially with long-term exposure. Due to the decibel levels in some work environments, workers are required to wear hearing protectors, such as earplugs or earmuffs.
The impact of noise on your hearing is cumulative, meaning it adds up over your lifetime. Even a single but long-lasting loud event can cause damage. The following decibel levels show you how long (or short!) you need to be exposed to a sound before hearing is permanently damaged.
- <70 dBA is considered safe, even if the sound lasts a long time
- 85 dBA and last a few hours.
- 100 dBA and last at least 14 minutes.
- 110 dBA and last at least 2 minutes.
Jobs that cause hearing loss
Manufacturing. If you were asked which jobs you thought caused hearing loss, manufacturing would likely top your list for all the reasons you think. The combined noise levels in a manufacturing plant make hearing loss the most common occupational illness in the manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, even when hearing protection is provided, some workers choose not to use it.
Statistics show that up to eight out of 10 workers in manufacturing have noise-related hearing loss. Worse, the majority of this hearing loss occurs within the first 10 years of employment in manufacturing. The result is that newer employees likely aren’t protecting their hearing unless the company requires it. And because noise-related hearing loss occurs gradually, the damage won’t be noticed until it is too late.
Entertainment/nightlife workers (bartenders, bouncers, etc). Concerts, crowd noise, dance music—whether the bartender, the band, the DJ or security, these loud work environments emit 110 to 115 dBA, which can cause permanent hearing damage with just 15 minutes of exposure. Work shifts last for hours. Even if businesses provide hearing protection, employees in this line of work may be disinclined to not use it if they like the music and noise or need to hear others for their job.
Military. Hearing loss is the most common service-related disability among active duty military and veterans. Combat troops are exposed to gunfire and explosions, whereas mechanics and other professions within the military are subject to the roar of ship or aircraft engines, hearing quickly becomes vulnerable. A study by the Hearing Health Foundation, formerly the Deafness Research Foundation, showed that more than 60 percent of returning combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Existing safety equipment is unable to protect against explosive noise levels that can reach up to 180 dBA. These explosions are the type of singular event that can instantly and permanently damage hearing, including rupturing the eardrums. Remember, it only takes 2 minutes at 110 dB to induce permanent damage.
Construction. Regardless of the type of construction work, construction workers are in danger of hearing damage. From power tools to jackhammers to constant, loud traffic, they face daily risk of permanent damage due to these loud and persistent sounds. The statistics are similar to those for manufacturing jobs.
Airport ground crews and flight crews. Flight crews experience up to 130 dBA of noise during takeoff, which is loud enough to rupture an eardrum. Because they are in constant contact with aircraft and machinery noise, the prolonged exposure to this noisy work environment is one of the worst hearing offenders.
Other professions. You may not expect these jobs to cause hearing loss; however, the sounds inherent in these professions place workers at high risk:
- Physical education teacher
- Ambulance driver
- Cleaning crews
How to protect your hearing on the job
With proper precautions, even these jobs that come with a high risk of noise-related hearing loss can be made safer for workers. Companies can help by sound-treating the workplace, keeping any machinery up-to-date and providing hearing protection that enhances sounds workers need to hear while blocking the harmful levels of sounds. As for the military, the Department of Defense created the Hearing Center of Excellence (HCE) to address hearing-related injuries and their associated costs.
Ways you can help protect your hearing on the job include:
- Use earplugs or muffs or custom-made ear plugs
- Move away from the loudest sound-producing source, such loudspeakers, when possible.
- Limit the length of time of exposure to loud sounds. Take breaks and ask for them if they are not provided.
- Pay attention to signs and information flyers warning of possible loud noise and the use of hearing protection.
- If your workplace does not provide hearing protection, bring hearing protection devices with you. Keep them in your car, pockets or any other easy to access place.
- Ask your employer to purchase a sound meter if they don’t have one. You can use this device to measure harmful decibel levels.
The first step in treating hearing loss is to get your hearing checked. This will provide your audiologist with a baseline for your current hearing ability so he or she can monitor any changes. Hearing tests can also identify damage already done and provide options for safety and hearing devices to treat job-related hearing loss. Please contact us to speak with one of our hearing specialists and set up an appointment to have your hearing checked.