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It’s common to think of hearing loss as an inevitable problem linked with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s daily use of iPods. But the numbers illustrate that the greater problem may be direct exposure to loud noise at work.

In the United States, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially unsafe noise, and an approximated 242 million dollars is devoted 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 professions, displaying that direct exposure to sounds above a certain level steadily enhances your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.

How loud is too loud?

A study conducted by Audicus revealed that, of those who were not exposed to occupational noise levels above 90 decibels, only 9 percent experienced noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In contrast, construction workers, who are continuously 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 appears that 85-90 decibels is the ceiling for safe sound levels, but that’s not the complete story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That means that as you raise 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 hardly detectable, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the limit for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells starts at 180 decibels. It’s the region between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be expected, the careers with progressively louder decibel levels have increasingly higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table displays, as the decibel levels connected 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 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 instance, 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 discovered that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were subjected to dangerous noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection devices on a daily basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to conform to stricter hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is moderately lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite being exposed 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 job, you need to take the right precautionary steps. If circumventing the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to reduce the noise levels (best accomplished 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 reduce your chances of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to consider a hearing protection plan for your specific 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 (in contrast to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).

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