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

In the United States, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially unsafe noise, and a projected 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, suggesting that being exposed to sounds above a certain level progressively increases your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in your life.

How loud is too loud?

A study conducted by Audicus discovered that, of those who were not exposed to occupational noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent suffered from noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In comparison, construction workers, who are consistently 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 seems that 85-90 decibels is the limit 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 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 perceptible, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the ceiling for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing tissue arises at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be anticipated, the vocations with progressively louder decibel levels have progressively higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table displays, as the decibel levels correlated 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 profession with decibel levels above 90 places its workforce 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 every 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 subjected to harmful noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection accessories on a every day basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to adhere to more rigid hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is moderately lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite exposure to near equivalent decibel levels.

All of the data point to one thing: the significance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk occupation, you need to take the right preventative steps. If circumventing the noise is not an option, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best attained with custom earplugs), in addition to ensuring that you take frequent rest breaks for your ears. Controlling both the sound volume and exposure time will lower your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.

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

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