It’s popular to think of hearing loss as an inescapable problem associated with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s constant use of iPods. But the numbers illustrate that the larger problem may be exposure to loud noise at work.

In the US, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially unsafe noise, and an estimated 242 million dollars is spent yearly 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 increases your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.

How loud is too loud?

A study performed by Audicus found that, of those who were not subjected to occupational noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent suffered from 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 seems that 85-90 decibels is the threshold for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the complete story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That signifies that as you increase the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level approximately doubles. So 160 decibels is not twice as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!

Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is hardly perceptible, 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 imagined, the occupations with increasingly louder decibel levels have increasingly higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table displays, as the decibel levels associated 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 case, as the decibel level increases, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss grows.

Protecting your hearing

A recent US study on the frequency of hearing loss in farming found that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were exposed to damaging noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection accessories on a daily basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to adhere to more stringent 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 preventative measures. If avoiding the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best attained with custom earplugs), in addition to making sure that you take routine rest breaks for your ears. Reducing both the sound volume and exposure time will minimize your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to explore a hearing protection plan for your specific circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide personalized solutions to best safeguard your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to defending your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can preserve the natural quality of sound (as opposed to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).

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