It’s popular to think of hearing loss as an inescapable problem associated with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s frequent use of iPods. But the numbers demonstrate that the greater problem may be direct exposure to loud noise at work.

In the United States, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise, and an estimated 242 million dollars is expended each 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 occupations, showing that direct exposure to sounds over a certain level steadily increases 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 work-related noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent experienced noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In comparison, construction workers, who are continually 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 seems that 85-90 decibels is the threshold for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the whole 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 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 ceiling for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing tissue happens at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be anticipated, the jobs with progressively louder decibel levels have increasingly higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table shows, as the decibel levels connected with each occupation increase, hearing loss rates increase as well:

OccupationDecibel levelIncidence rates of hearing loss at age 50
No noise exposureLess than 90 decibels9%
Manufacturing105 decibels30%
Farming105 decibels36%
Construction120 decibels60%

Any profession with decibel levels above 90 places its workers 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 each case, 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 found that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were exposed to unsafe noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection devices on a routine basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to conform to stricter hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is slightly lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite being exposed to near equivalent decibel volumes.

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

If you would like to investigate a hearing protection plan for your personal circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide custom-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 maintain the natural quality of sound (as opposed to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).

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