The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise while on the job each year. This is an astounding number, especially when taking into consideration the fact that most of this damage is entirely preventable. Whether you work at a sports venue, on a tarmac, operate a jackhammer, or employee others who fulfill these rolls you should know that hearing loss can come with the territory if precautions are not put in place.
Exposure to loud noise kills the nerve endings in our inner ear. More exposure will result in more dead nerve endings. The result is permanent hearing loss that cannot be corrected through surgery or with medicine. Once these nerve endings are dead, there is nothing that can be done to recapture the level of hearing that has been lost. Noise-induced hearing loss limits your ability to hear high frequency sounds and understand speech, which seriously impairs your ability to communicate. Hearing aids may help, but they do not restore your hearing to its previous level of normalcy.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has created the Sound Level Meter App. This is a useful tool available to the public to download on mobile devices that measures sound levels in the workplace. It also provides parameters on noise exposure that help reduce occupational hearing loss that is noise induced.
One profession that has been found to be disproportionately affected by hearing loss is dentistry. Dentists, hygienists, and other dental technicians are exposed to the noise of scalers and scrapers which operate at levels of 60-99 decibels. While this level of noise would normally present minimal risk, it is the sustained exposure that people in this profession encounter over the days, months, and years that can result in hearing loss. An important factor for any dentist to consider is if they are exposed to the noise of dental equipment for 15-45 minutes at a time, several times a day, over a period of many years the hair cells in the cochlea and the nerve endings in the inner ear will sustain damage. Just as dentists tell their patients to brush and floss to ensure good oral health, they should remember to adopt some preventive measures themselves to preserve their own hearing.
Sensorineural hearing loss results in diminished intensity of conversation and other sounds, sound distortion, and difficulty understanding complex sounds. High tones are particularly difficult to hear, and enunciations of the letters s, f and z may not be heard at all. Furthermore, it may be difficult to hear conversation in a noisy room or where there is surrounding environmental noise. In some cases, the hearing loss may be accompanied by tinnitus (ringing, buzzing or other noises in the ear). The degree of hearing loss may be mild, moderate or severe.
Reduce Noise Levels
Reduced noise levels will directly reduce the risk of hearing loss for you and your employees. You should consider the use of alternative equipment or safe systems of work including
- shock absorbers
- well maintained equipment
- sound barriers, absorbers or reflectors
- designing work areas to separate noisy machines
- silencers and vibration dampers to machines and tools
- limiting the amount of time employees need to spend in noisy areas each day.
Provide Hearing Protection
Hearing protection in noisy environments should normally only be considered as a temporary measure. Ideally, the best course of action would be to reduce noise levels to a safe zone. However, in many occupations and situations this simply is not possible. Protection should always be provided to employees and use of this protection should be monitored and encouraged whenever a noise risk remains, despite all efforts to minimize it. Keep in mind that while working to reduce noise levels, it is good practice to provide suitable hearing protection to staff exposed above 80 decibels.
You should also
- make sure that hearing protection is properly maintained
- identify zones with signs to show where hearing protection must be worn
- introduce a health surveillance program for hearing assessments if required
- provide information, instruction and training on how to use, take care of and reorder hearing protection.
There are a wide variety of products available to protect your hearing.
Expandable foam plugs
These plugs are made of a formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each person’s ear canal. Roll the expandable plugs into a thin, crease-free cylinder. It really does not matter how you roll these plugs. You can roll them between your thumb and fingers, or you can roll them across your palm. What really matter is the final result, and that is that you have a smooth tube that is thin enough so that about half the length will fit easily into your ear canal. Some individuals, especially women and children with small ear canals, have difficulty rolling standard foam plugs small enough to make them fit. A few manufacturers now offer a small size expandable plug for these situations.
Pre-molded, reusable plugs
Pre-molded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are manufactured as either “one-size-fits-most” or are available in several sizes. Many pre-molded plugs are available in sizes for small, medium or large ear canals.
A critical tip about pre-molded plugs is that a person may need a different size plug for each ear. The plugs should seal the ear canal without being uncomfortable. This takes trial and error of the various sizes. Directions for fitting each model of pre-molded plug may differ slightly depending on how many flanges they have and how the tip is shaped. Insert this type of plug by reaching over your head with one hand to pull up on your ear. Then use your other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion until you have sealed the ear canal.
Advantages of pre-molded plugs are that they are relatively inexpensive, reusable, washable, convenient to carry, and come in a variety of sizes. Nearly everyone can find a plug that will be comfortable and effective. An added bonus to this type of protection is that in dirty or dusty environments, you don’t need to handle or roll the tips like you do with the expandable foam plugs.
Earmuffs come in a large selection of models designed to fit most people. They completely cover the outer ear, blocking out harmful noises. Earmuffs can be “low profile” with small ear cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme noise. Some earmuffs also include electronic components to help users communicate without removing their ear protection.
One downside to earmuffs is that workers who have heavy beards or sideburns or who wear glasses may find it difficult to get good protection. The hair and the temples of the glasses break the seal that the earmuff cushions make around the ear. For these workers, earplugs are best. Other potential drawbacks of earmuffs are that some people feel they can be hot and heavy in some environments.
Keep in mind that you can also wear earplugs and earmuffs together for even greater protection!
Hearing protection often needs to be worn with other protective equipment such as glasses or hard hats. Make sure that these are compatible, and one system does not interfere with the other.
Additional Precautionary Measures
In addition to providing hearing protection, here are seven tips to help keep your ears as sharp as possible.
- Avoid Too Much Noise
How loud is too loud? If you have to shout over the noise around you, it’s loud enough to damage your hearing. We have already talked out how many of these noises are unavoidable in the work environment and measures should be taken to protect yourself and your employees from these. But it is also important to remember this rule applies outside of the workplace as well. Sounds from motorcycles, concert speakers, power tools like saws and drills in your home garage, earphones, and more are all loud enough to affect you negatively. We all love to crank up the volume on our music from time to time, but we would do well to remember the price we pay for overexposure to loud noises.
- Be a Quiet Enforcer
Think about buying appliances and devices that have low noise ratings. This will pay off in the long run by providing a more peaceful and quiet home environment that is also friendly to your ears. If it’s too loud in the movie theater, restaurant, or any other place you go often you might want to consider carrying earplugs.
- Limit Loud Sounds in Your Life
Sometimes you can’t avoid the blare of an ambulance siren or the jackhammer on your street corner. But it’s best to limit the amount of time you’re around them. Noise-induced hearing loss is a result of the loudness of sounds and how long you hear them. Be aware of your surroundings and do your best to minimize your exposure to prolonged noise pollution.
- Don’t Smoke
Oddly enough, tobacco can make you more likely to lose your hearing. According to Audiology Hearing and Health in their article, “How Are Smoking and Hearing Loss Related?”, smokers have a 70% greater chance of developing hearing loss compared to non-smokers. Another shocking statistic is that nonsmokers are twice as likely to develop hearing loss if they live with a smoker. The greater your daily average of cigarettes, the greater your risk of developing hearing loss. If you light up, that’s one more good reason to quit. If you aren’t a smoker, avoid breathing secondhand smoke!
- Remove Earwax Properly
A buildup of wax in your ears can muffle sound. But don’t use a cotton swab to clean them out — they can push wax deeper in. Instead, use an at-home irrigation kit to soften wax and gently wash it out. If it gets compacted in your ear, your doctor may need to remove it.
- Check Medications for Hearing Risks
About 200 drugs can damage hearing, including some antibiotics and cancer-fighting drugs. Even high doses of aspirin can harm your ears. If you take a prescription medication, check with your doctor to make sure it won’t make an impact. If you must take a medication that may harm your ears, make sure your doctor checks your hearing and balance before and during your treatment.
- Have Your Hearing Tested
Make an appointment to get a hearing test if you:
- Have close relatives with hearing loss
- Have trouble hearing conversations
- Are around loud noises on a regular basis
- Often hear ringing in your ears
- You haven’t had one before
Ultimately, the best protection for your hearing is to be aware of your surroundings and the hazards you encounter daily. Always protect your ears and remember that the best defense is a product that is comfortable and convenient, and that you will grab every time you are in an environment with hazardous noise levels.