NIHL or noise induced hearing loss is experienced in a variety of workplaces. People from all backgrounds have the potential to lose their hearing from noise above safe levels, whether at work or in daily life. However, those who are in professions like construction, manufacturing, military, first responder teams, and more have a higher chance of being exposed to dangerous levels of noise.
Without the right safety equipment, essential workers are at high risk for damaging or permanently losing their hearing. Because eliminating the loud noises is often not possible in these professions, technology is used to protect workers’ hearing.
How does NIHL happen?
NIHL occurs when noise reaches decibels that are dangerous to hearing. Decibels are the units in which sound is measured. Studies from the National Institute of Health show that consistent exposure to noise over 85 decibels (dBA) can cause hearing loss (“Overall Statistics”). According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a normal conversation is 60-70dBA so the line between safe and dangerous is slim.
Normal activities like movie theaters, listening to music in headphones, sporting events, and more can range between 75-110dBA (“Noise-Induced Hearing Loss”). Therefore, work instances like noise from loud machinery, gunshots, or sirens can absolutely cause hearing damage or loss. Consequently, those who work in environments where these noises occur are being subjected to potential NIHL.
In an effort to work against NIHL, OSHA or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has guidelines that employers must follow to keep their employees’ hearing protected.
What are the OSHA Guidelines?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a few different guidelines for employers to follow. The expectation is the implementation of a hearing conservation program. This program includes a variety of requirements.
Employers are required to provide education on preventing hearing loss, preserving remaining hearing, and equip workers with knowledge and equipment to protect themselves. As a result, employers are supposed to both supply the necessary equipment for protecting hearing and information on how to use the equipment.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “About 25% of all workers have been exposed to hazardous noise…53% of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection”. These statistics show that workplace caused NIHL is widespread in the United States.
What can be done for prevention?
There are three main ways to protect one’s hearing: limiting exposure to 85dBA and above, protection technology, and hearing recovery (Hohman, Nick). Limiting hearing loss always starts with prevention.
One form of prevention is avoiding areas that include noise at or above 85dBA for extended periods of time. Avoidance is often not possible in jobs where NIHL is a risk; therefore, the next logical step is protection equipment. Technology like earplugs and a variety of communications headsets are great choices for protection.
Earplugs use NRR or noise reduction rating technology to protect hearing. When choosing the right earplugs, it is imperative that you consider the situation in which they will be used. In most workplaces, communication is key to efficiency; therefore, your earplugs should not block out all noise.
It is often assumed that no noise is great for hearing protection; however, there is such a thing as overprotection (Gaworski and Luedtki). In professions like construction, landscaping, shooting ranges, and more, hearing protection is important. Nevertheless, communication is just as important for safety. In these jobs, if a worker cannot hear certain instructions or notices, they can become seriously injured.
An alternative technology to earplugs that will eliminate the complete noise block is communications headsets. This equipment is often used in conjunction with a two-way radio for hands-free consistent communication. Headsets offer different technology like environmental listening which allows workers to hear environmental noises at a low decibel. With this feature, workers can hear directions and warning noises like the beeping from a truck backing up or a siren, at safe levels.
Using hearing protection equipment can do wonders for maintaining healthy hearing. However, accidents can occur, and workers can be caught in situations where they take their protection off at the wrong time causing hearing damage. If this happens, it is best for that person to actively recover.
If the damage is not consistent, permanent hearing loss can be prevented with recovery. The cochlea is the part of the inner ear that plays a major role in the sense of hearing. Inside of the cochlea are hair cells which act as the noise detectors (“How Does Loud Noise”). When a person hears loud noise—noise above 85 decibels—the hair cells bend. If the same person avoids loud noise exposure for a day or two, the hair cells will unbend to avoid permanent damage.
When an employer implements these three protection tactics—avoidance, technology, and recovery, they are protecting their workers’ present and future hearing abilities. Moreover, they are protecting themselves from being liable if legal action is pursued in the event an employee’s hearing is damaged.
If you are an employee or employer working in industries like construction, airports, military ranges, landscaping, farm corporations, and factories, and you do not get or provide a hearing conservation program, you are at risk. Noise induced hearing loss is highly preventable; it is all about the right equipment and knowledge. We hope this article acts as a guideline for readers to determine if their workplace is giving them the tools they need to protect their current and future hearing abilities.
“How Does Loud Noise Cause Hearing Loss.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 Nov. 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/how_does_loud_noise_cause_hearing_loss.
Gaworski, Ashley, and Trish Luedtke. “Too much hearing protection can put workers at risk.” Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, 5 Jan. 2015, https://www.ishn.com/articles/100373-too-much-hearing-protection-can-put-workers-at-risk.
“Overall Statistics – All U.S. Industries.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 Nov. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ohl/overall.html.
“Noise-Induced Hearing Loss.” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 16 March 2022, https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/noise-induced-hearing-loss.
Parenti, Deanna. “Everything You Need to Know About OSHA and Noise-Induced Hearing Loss.” First Source Wireless, 22 March 2022, https://firstsourcewireless.com/blogs/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-osha-and-noise-induced-hearing-loss.
Hohman, Nick. “How to Prevent Hearing Loss in the Workplace.” First Source Wireless, 08 Feb. 2018, https://firstsourcewireless.com/blogs/blog/hearing-loss-prevention.