It’s typical to think of hearing loss as an inevitable problem linked with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s daily use of iPods. But the numbers show that the larger problem may be exposure to loud noise at work.

In the US, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise, and an estimated 242 million dollars is paid every year 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 above a certain level progressively heightens your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.

How loud is too loud?

A study performed by Audicus found that, of those who were not exposed to work-related noise levels above 90 decibels, only 9 percent suffered from noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In contrast, construction workers, who are repeatedly exposed to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, suffered from noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!

It appears that 85-90 decibels is the threshold for safe sound levels, but that’s not the complete story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That means that as you increase the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level roughly 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 hardly detectable, regular 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 expected, the careers with increasingly louder decibel levels have progressively higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table reveals, as the decibel levels associated with each profession increase, hearing loss rates increase as well:

Occupation Decibel level Incidence rates of hearing loss at age 50
No noise exposure Less than 90 decibels 9%
Manufacturing 105 decibels 30%
Farming 105 decibels 36%
Construction 120 decibels 60%

Any occupation with decibel levels above 90 places its workforce 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 rises, 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 found that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were subjected to harmful noise levels, but that only 44 percent reported to use hearing protection accessories on a routine 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 subjection to near equivalent decibel volumes.

All of the data point to one thing: the significance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk job, you need to take the right preventative measures. If staying away from the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to minimize the noise levels (best achieved with custom earplugs), in addition to assuring that you take frequent rest breaks for your ears. Limiting both the sound volume and exposure time will minimize your chances of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to talk about a hearing protection plan for your particular circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide tailor-made solutions to best safeguard your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to defending your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can maintain the natural quality of sound (in contrast to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).

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