Some 22 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work each year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Occupational hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition among adults behind hypertension and arthritis. American businesses pay an estimated $242 million annually in workers compensation claims tied to hearing loss, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Hearing loss is about more than missing out on conversations. It can lead to depression, feelings of isolation, and cognitive impairment, and it can increase the risk of workplace accidents, according to research from the Mayo Clinic and Grigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Fortunately, much is known about preventing hearing loss, and many resources exist to help keep workers and others safe in a noisy world.
Factory workers, musicians, farmers, dental workers, construction workers, coaches and game officials, military personnel, and first responders often face hazardous noise levels, according to NIOSH. The cumulative effects of hazardous noise levels can be serious.
“People with hearing loss face an increased risk of disability and dementia, and men with hearing problems face an increased risk of depression,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital Blue Cross, citing research from the University of Bordeaux in France.
Loud music, crowd noise, traffic noise, and other sounds of everyday life can slowly chip away our hearing health. Researchers largely agree that 85 decibels is a kind of tipping point when it comes to noise hazards. NIOSH reports that a person exposed to sounds levels of 85 decibels for more than eight hours could begin to damage their hearing, and adds that safe exposure time gets cut in half for 3-decibel increase above 85 decibels.
Normal conversation registers between 60 and 70 decibels while fireworks or gunshots can soar to ear-splitting levels of 140 or 150 decibels. A person pushing a lawnmower registering between 90 and 110 decibels would risk hearing damage in less than 30 minutes without protection, NIOSH estimates.
“The world can be a noisy place,” Dr. Chambers said. “The best advice for employers and workers is to take sensible precautions and to learn more about hazardous noise exposure.”
Anyone with a smartphone, for example, can download free noise meter apps like the NIOSH Sound Level Meter.
The NIOSH website is loaded with helpful information. It urges employers to require ear protection, to identify dangerously noisy areas, and to encourage employees to have annual hearing exams to determine baseline hearing ability.
NIOSH’s “Buy Quiet,” initiative encourages machine makers to design quieter tools, and machine users to buy or rent quieter tools for their employees. It even maintains a database of power tools ranked by how much noise they make.
And while occupational hearing loss is not reversible, technology can help. Dr. Chambers said the risks of depression, disability, and dementia often associated with hearing loss can be reduced with the use of hearing aids.