National World Day for Safety and Health at Work : Noise Induced Hearing Loss
Written by: Matthew Seldine, Au.D., F-AAA
Clinical Audiologist at Hearing Partners of South FL
April 28th is National World Day for Safety and Health at Work. This is a great opportunity to discuss an important topic related to our health that we may not think about until it is too late – Noise Induced Hearing Loss, or NIHL. This condition is one of the most common causes of hearing loss and one of the most common causes of occupational illness in the United States. What’s more is that it is almost completely, 100% preventable. Let’s discuss some important aspects of NIHL and how it relates to occupational health and safety.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss, according to the Better Hearing Institute, a research and educational arm of the Hearing Industries Association, is “a hearing disorder characterized by a gradual, progressive loss of high frequency hearing sensitivity over time, as a result of exposure to excessive noise levels.” This condition is increasingly becoming a growing concern in America as it currently affects 10 million Americans with now irreversible permanent damage to their inner ears from noise exposure. Another 30-50 million Americans are exposed to unsafe noise levels every day. NIHL is especially high among the following professions: factory and heavy industry workers, transportation workers, military personnel, construction workers, miners, farmers, firefighters, police officers, musicians, and entertainment industry professionals.
The effects of NIHL are often underestimated as they occur gradually over time and because they are invisible. In other words, there is no external marker for their presence or no visible wound to identify. Rather, individuals tend to take necessary action after it is too late when prevention could have been utilized early on to avoid auditory damage in the first place. People commonly begin to experience communication difficulties such as a reduced ability to communicate in environments with even mild amounts of background noise, struggling to communicate with partners unless they are facing them, cannot clearly understand people talking to them at increased distances (as little as three feet away), and report that people are “mumbling.”
The presence of tinnitus, or the perception of a sound in the ears in the absence of an external stimulus, is another very common symptom associated with NIHL. Tinnitus can be very distressing to individuals and affects as many as 30 million adults. The bothersome effects of tinnitus are varied and range from its presence being merely a minor distraction to something that severely impacts peoples’ daily lives. Thoughts and emotions may be altered, usable hearing is covered up, falling and staying asleep is more difficult, and concentration is negatively affected.
The risk of NIHL is dependent on two key factors: intensity and duration. Essentially, the louder a sound is, the shorter the duration we are allowed to be near it. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of legal noise exposure in the workplace averaged over an 8 hour day is 90 dBA. As this limit is increased by 5 dBA the duration of exposure decreases by half. For example, if the noise level increases to 95 dBA then the amount of time a person can be exposed to that level of noise drops to 4 hours a day.
NIHL commonly begins as a temporary inconvenience to workers and thus one that employers may not pay attention to. Unfortunately, NIHL commonly progresses into a permanent condition and ultimately a costly condition for the same employers to manage. Last year, according to OSHA, U.S. business paid upwards of $1.5 million in penalties for not protecting workers from noise. In addition, it is estimated that $242 million is spent annually on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability. The financial aspect is steep, but just like the preventative nature of NIHL, these payouts could have been avoided. Furthermore, the financial burden on employers cannot truly be compared to the personal, financial, and emotional impact of hearing loss on those it affects.
Hearing conservation programs are designed to be implemented in a variety of work settings where loud noise exposure is prevalent. They are geared towards prevention of occupational hearing loss, preservation and protection of residual hearing, and education of workers with ways in which they can protect their hearing with hearing protection devices. Employers are required to make the appropriate acoustic measurements of their workplace settings and provide adequate hearing protection to their workers among other responsibilities.
Audiologists can work with these employers to provide education, tools, and resources to help safeguard employees’ hearing. Baseline and annual hearing evaluations are performed, hearing protection devices are appropriately selected for specific uses, and training often times accompanies the use of these devices. Research supports the finding that appropriately and effectively implemented hearing conservation programs positively impacts workplaces with higher levels of workplace productivity and a lower incidence of absenteeism.
Be alert to dangerous noise levels around you. Prevention is critical when it comes to hearing loss. Protect your hearing now so you may enjoy it later!
We make custom hearing protection that is more comfortable and effective than over the counter options. In extreme cases, it is recommended that one wear both custom ear plugs and headphones to minimize the exposure. Hearing Partners of South Florida offers a wide range of custom solutions to help protect your hearing.
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Delray Beach office:561.638.6530
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