Could your job be affecting your hearing? If you work in certain fields, the answer is probably yes. Although no occupation is 100 percent safe when it comes to hearing, there are certain jobs that increase the risk factor. The fact is that according to the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, more than 22 million Americans will be exposed to damaging levels of noise as a result of their occupation this year alone. We’ll explore five of the top offenders that could put you at risk for hearing loss, and let you know how these industries are doing when it comes to addressing the problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four million workers head off to work each day in an environment which exposes them to harmful decibel levels. Occupational hearing loss might not just be about long-term noise levels, though, as it can actually develop as a result of a number of factors. Although long-term exposure to harmful noise levels is most commonly thought of when one thinks of job-related hearing loss, hearing loss on the job can also come from a single instance of high decibel noise exposure as well as exposure to ototoxic chemicals. No matter what the source, however, even these occupations that come with a high risk of noise-related hearing loss can be made safer with proper precautions.
The cliché of the noisy manufacturing floor is unfortunately all too true. The loud machinery, compressed air and clanking of manufactured goods all combine to make hearing loss the most common occupational illness in the manufacturing industry. Statistics say that as many as eight out of 10 of those in manufacturing have noise-related hearing loss. As a matter of fact, the majority of job-related hearing loss happens within the first 10 years of employment in manufacturing, which means that newer employees aren’t protecting their hearing unless the company requires it. And since noise-related hearing loss is a gradual progression, the damage isn’t noticed until it is too late.
Many companies do provide hearing protection, but the problem is that some workers choose not to wear it because they feel like it hinders their job performance and causes safety risks. Companies can help by sound treating the workplace, keeping machinery up to date and providing high-grade hearing protection that enhances sounds workers want to hear while blocking harmful decibel levels.
Although construction, carpentry and mining are drastically different occupations, they share an unpleasant side effect: noise-related hearing loss. The tools used tend to be well over the recommended limit of 85 decibels (dB), with equipment such as the hammer drill sometimes reaching levels as high as 115 dB. As a matter of fact, the mining industry has a higher percentage of workers exposed to harmful noise than any other industry in the U.S. Due to the overall lack of hearing protection oversight, the large number of contract employees and the seasonal nature of employees in the construction industry, the construction industry, in particular, has had trouble putting any meaningful hearing conservation practices into place.
When you are out at a loud nightclub, do you ever stop to consider how your hearing is affected? Probably not. Unfortunately, for too many years neither have many of those who are employed in the entertainment or nightlife sector, including DJs, musicians, bartenders, wait staff and security. That thumping bass exposure night after night, often at levels reaching over 100 dB, can wreak havoc on hearing, causing noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. And most nightclubs regularly exceed the level at which employers are required to provide hearing protection for their employees; the question is, though, even if hearing protection was provided, would it actually be worn?
Nick Cageao, head of audio at Saint Vitus bar in Brooklyn, agrees that hearing protection is important. The noise level of a show at Saint Vitus typically reaches at least 98 dB and has been known to reach 115 dB. He owns a pair of hi-def earplugs, but more often than not simply forgets to wear them.
The problem with dangerous volume in nightclubs isn’t likely to change any time soon, as club goers and musicians alike tend to prefer the ear-splitting music. And though there have been attempts to set limits on maximum volume allowed, that maximum volume is already set dangerously high.
Hearing loss among military veterans has become an epidemic. Between gunfire, explosions and the roar of ship or aircraft engines, hearing quickly becomes vulnerable. A study by the Hearing Health Foundation, formerly the Deafness Research Foundation, showed that more than 60 percent of returning combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus, and hearing loss is the most common service-related disability.
In response, the department of defense created the Hearing Center of Excellence (HCE) to address the growing problem of hearing-related injuries and their associated costs. Better hearing protection is also being developed, as the existing equipment is unable to withstand explosive noise levels that can reach up to 180 dB.
Over one-third of the farmers in the U.S. have hearing loss, according to Gordon Hughes, director of clinical programs for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Daily exposure to harmful noise starts at a young age, with the sounds of livestock, tractors, combines and other noisy equipment. However, federal agencies as well as local groups are making an effort to educate the younger generation about the dangers of excessive noise levels and the importance of hearing protection. In addition, there is a push for equipment manufacturers to continue to improve equipment in order to reduce the noise level.
Although more effort to reduce the risk of hearing loss in the workplace is needed, positive steps toward that goal are being taken every day across a broad spectrum of industries. “Looking at hearing loss trends across all industries over a long period of time can provide a better understanding of what still needs to be done for the protection of workers,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “Noise control in the workplace is directly linked to the prevention of hearing loss among workers in all industries and can positively impact workers on the job and at home.”