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McDonald Hearing Services - Grand Rapids, MI

It’s common to think of hearing loss as an unavoidable problem connected with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s routine use of iPods. But the numbers indicate that the larger problem may be direct 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 expended on a yearly basis 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 occupations, suggesting that being exposed to sounds above a certain level steadily increases your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.

How loud is too loud?

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

It appears that 85-90 decibels is the limit for safe sound levels, 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 approximately 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 scarcely perceptible, 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 imagined, the professions 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 correlated with each profession 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), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In each scenario, as the decibel level increases, 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 revealed that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were subjected to harmful noise levels, but that only 44 percent reported to use hearing protection devices on a everyday basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to conform to more rigid hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is slightly lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite subjection to near equivalent decibel volumes.

All of the data point to one thing: the importance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk occupation, you need to take the right protective steps. If avoiding the noise is not an option, you need to find ways to minimize the noise levels (best accomplished with custom earplugs), in addition to assuring that you take routine rest breaks for your ears. Controlling both the sound volume and exposure time will reduce your chances of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to discuss a hearing protection plan for your particular circumstances 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 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).