People also refer to industrial hearing loss as industrial deafness, occupational deafness, and occupational noise-induced hearing loss.
Industrial hearing loss affects millions of people in the United States. While laws have improved health and safety conditions for workers, 22 million people a year are still exposed to potentially damaging noise levels within the workplace. This exposure can lead to hearing loss, and even deafness.
How does noise cause hearing loss?
Loud sounds can cause damage to the sensitive hair cells located in the cochlea. You cannot replace or repair these cells. This damage results in hearing loss, although the process occurs gradually. If you are exposed to the noise for an extended period or frequently on a regular basis, then you are at high risk of suffering from permanent loss of hearing.
What is noise- induced hearing loss?
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a type of hearing impairment that is caused by exposure to loud noise. While a single gunshot heard at close range could instantly cause permanent damage to your hearing, you can also suffer severe damage due to repeated exposure to harmful noise over an extended period.
It can occur due to non-occupational and recreational activities, as well as due to injurious noise at work. Since the damage can take place so gradually, people typically underestimate the effects loud noises can have on your hearing. However, even though it is avoidable, after age-related hearing loss, it is the most common form of hearing loss.
This type of hearing loss limits your ability to understand speech and hear high-frequency sounds. These symptoms have a devastating impact on your ability to communicate with others. While hearing aids may be able to help, they will not be able to restore your hearing to normal.
What is industrial hearing loss?
People also refer to industrial hearing loss as industrial deafness, occupational deafness, and occupational noise-induced hearing loss. The condition results in a loss of hearing due to prolonged exposure to harmful noise in the workplace. It occurs in a range of industries, including construction, engineering, manufacturing, and trucking.
Occupational NIHL is one of the most common occupational illnesses in America, affecting ten million people. The damage tends to be most severe if exposed to high frequencies, leading to a sensorineural hearing loss.
What decibel level causes hearing loss?
When measuring noise levels, you use decibels (dB). The louder the sound, the higher the decibel level. For example, a whisper would only be about 20 decibels and a garbage disposal about 80 decibels.
If you experience exposure to noise louder than 85dB for extended periods of time, then you could suffer permanent damage. The hearing system is fragile and can sustain an injury by prolonged exposure to noise at high decibel levels, as well as by a one-time exposure to the intense sound of an explosion or loud blast.
What kind of sounds over 85dB can you experience at work?
When you work in industries such as forestry, construction, mining, and engineering, you will inevitably experience exposure to loud noises over 85dB. In many cases, the sounds are much louder and can produce far more damage.
Examples of noises at 85dB and over include:
- Sawing – 85dB
- Mixer – 85dB
- Truck close by – 90dB
- Drill – 95dB
- Jackhammer (pneumatic drill) at close range – 100dB
- Machine in a factory – 100dB
- Chainsaw – 110dB
If you suspect noise may be a problem at your place of work, then you should look out for the following warning signs:
- When speaking to coworkers an arm’s length away, you need to shout for them to hear you
- When you leave work, you experience temporary hearing loss
- After work, you hear humming or ringing in your ears
- Those who have worked there for years have trouble understanding conversations in crowds, such as at parties or restaurants
While the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) sets legal limits of noise exposure at work, it is not rare for businesses to not take the proper precautions. Just last year, companies in the U.S. had to pay over $1.5 million in penalties for not protecting their employees from loud sounds in the workplace.
Who is affected by noise-induced hearing loss?
Since exposure can occur at home and in recreational settings, as well as in the workplace, you can develop the condition at any age. One in ten people between the ages of 20 and 69 in the United States are thought to have already suffered permanent damage to their hearing due to excessive exposure to loud sounds.
What are the signs of NIHL?
Industrial hearing loss typically occurs over several years. The experience is gradual, and many people will not notice, or will ignore the symptoms until they are more pronounced. There are no highly visible physical changes, such as bleeding, that make it easy to spot the damage that is taking place.
Common symptoms related to industrial hearing loss include:
- Temporary or permanent hearing loss
- Lack of hearing in one or both ears
- Struggling to hear people over background noise
- Ringing, hissing or buzzing sounds, which can indicate tinnitus
- Having to turn up the volume on the TV or radio
- Missing parts of conversations
If you suspect you already suffer from hearing loss, then you should schedule a medical examination with an otolaryngologist, as they specialize in diseases of the ear. Additionally, you should schedule a hearing test with an audiologist.
How can you prevent industrial hearing loss?
Luckily, noise-induced hearing loss is preventable by practicing good hearing health. When working in a noisy workplace where you know, you will have exposure to sounds at or over 85dB; you should wear appropriate hearing protectors. These include earmuffs and earplugs, which can be purchased at hardware and sporting goods stores if not provided by your workplace.
For workers in the general industry, which includes manufacturing, the OSHA has set requirements for employers to implement a Hearing Conservation Program. Businesses will need to execute this program if employees who are working an 8-hour shift receive exposure to a time-weighted average sound level of 85dBA.
Employers are required to measure noise levels, provide free hearing protection and annual hearing exams, as well as adequate training. If your company fails to undertake the appropriate risk assessments and develop a safe working environment, then they can be held responsible for damage caused to your hearing.