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 daily use of iPods. But the numbers reveal that the bigger problem may be exposure to loud noise at work.

In the US, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially hazardous noise, and a projected 242 million dollars is paid yearly 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, showing that exposure to sounds over a certain level progressively raises your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in your life.

How loud is too loud?

A study conducted by Audicus found 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 contrast, construction workers, who are repeatedly exposed to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, experienced noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!

It seems that 85-90 decibels is the ceiling for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the entire story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That means 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 hardly noticeable, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the threshold for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells starts 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 indicates, as the decibel levels correlated 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 personnel 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 every case, as the decibel level rises, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss rises with it.

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 subjected to dangerous noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection equipment on a daily basis. Factory workers, on the other hand, tend to adhere to stricter hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the frequency of hearing loss is slightly lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite exposure to near equivalent decibel levels.

All of the data point to one thing: the necessity of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk occupation, you need to take the right precautionary steps. If avoiding the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to decrease the noise levels (best accomplished 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 lower your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to explore a hearing protection plan for your specific situation or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide personalized 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 preserve the natural quality of sound (in contrast to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).

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