According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 22 million Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of noise in the workplace every year, making hearing loss the most common work-related injury in the US. Workers in the mining sector are most likely to suffer hearing loss, followed by those who work in construction and manufacturing.
Noise-induced hearing loss can be serious and disabling, and the Labor Department estimates that US businesses spend over 242 million dollars annually to compensate workers for their hearing loss disability claims.
The CDC carried out their study earlier this year, with the aim of determining the prevalence of work-related hearing loss in nine different industry sectors. They reviewed over 1,400,000 audiograms from noise-exposed workers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, as part of their Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance Project.
The “Hear and Now” Campaign
In light of these troubling statistics, the Department of Labor has launched a new competition called the “Hear and Now – Noise Safety Challenge” to help reduce occupational hearing loss.
The DOL hopes that entrepreneurs and investors alike will be take part in developing better technological solutions to hearing-related workplace noise hazards which take a heavy toll on individuals and businesses across America.
The competition is a partnership between OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and NIOSH. Alongside the goal of inspiring workplace safety innovation, the competition has another aim: raising awareness of occupational hearing loss and the existing means of preventing it, such as wearing ear protection at work.
A concern for audiological experts, and one that is not likely to be addressed by this campaign, is the suitability of the regulations issued by NIOSH, which many believe are outdated and no longer reflect the current knowledge concerning hearing damage.
How noise-related hearing loss occurs
Although it might seem that workers subjected to the most extreme noise are at the highest risk of hearing loss, the CDC study revealed that in fact those who work in moderate, long-term noise are more at risk, as these workers are less vigilant about wearing hearing protection.
Noise-induced hearing loss can occur suddenly, with exposure to a sudden acoustic trauma, such as an explosion. But it is far more common for this type of hearing loss to occur in a cumulative way, over time. Most people do not feel any symptoms until after the damage has occurred, making this injury very hard to initially detect.
Loud sounds can cause the hair cells of the inner ear to collapse and flatten temporarily, resulting in a loss in hearing frequencies, which may be temporary or permanent, depending on the noise level and length of exposure. Noise-related hearing loss may also be accompanied by a ringing sensation called tinnitus.
As moderate-to-high noise exposure is repeated over many years, the hair cells in the inner ear become permanently damaged, resulting in irreversible hearing loss.
Scientists and researchers are learning more about hearing loss every day, and new evidence suggests that people respond differently to noise–meaning the decibel level at which damage occurs is not the same for everyone. Being exposed to 8 hours (a workday) of 85-decibel noise is considered safe for most individuals, but some people may experience hearing damage at this level. As sounds become louder and more intense, permanent hearing loss can occur over much shorter periods of time.
How to protect your hearing at work
If you work in an at-risk occupation, or in another noisy environment such as a stadium, bar, or music venue, ask your employer to make sure that your workplace has an effective program to protect your hearing, and that this program meets the current federal and state regulations.
If you have work-issued hearing protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs, be consistent about wearing them, especially when around loud equipment. Foam earplugs can be purchased at your local pharmacy, earmuffs can be found at sporting goods or safety equipment stores, and custom-fitted earplugs can be found at many hearing clinics.
Don’t be afraid to speak up about dangerous noise levels at work, and make sure you have the necessary ear protection. If you are experiencing any changes in your hearing, visit us at Hearing Health for a hearing exam today!