Occupational Hearing Hazards

Hearing Health

Hearing loss impacts millions of people. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition among adults. There are several factors that can contribute to impaired hearing including: medical conditions (and medications) that impact hearing health, genetic history, and environmental exposure to loud noise. We navigate various environments with varying levels of noise on a daily basis. Most of this noise – traffic, phone alarm, cooking appliances, voices during conversations – are not particularly harmful. However, there are a lot of people who absorb loud noise, short term or long term, consistently in their workplace.

The CDC highlights the scope of occupational hearing hazards with the following statistics:

  • 12% of the working population has hearing difficulty
  • 24% of the hearing difficulty among workers is caused by occupational exposures
  • 8% of the working population has tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing noise in one or both ears)
  • 4% has both hearing difficulty and tinnitus
  • Being aware of workplace noise, its impact, and taking measures to prevent noise-induced hearing loss is incredibly important to maintaining your health!

The Hearing Process

The hearing process involves a complex process that requires the complete function of the ears.

  • Outer Ear: is the most visible part of the ear (the outside) as well as the ear canal and ear drum which separates the outer from the middle ear
  • Middle Ear: consists of the ossicles, three connected bones (among the smallest in the human body) and the eustachian tube
  • Inner Ear: includes the cochlea (filled with hair cells and fluid), and canals responsible for maintaining balance

The outer ear absorbs sound from the environment which travels through the ear canal and strikes the eardrum. This causes the ear drum to vibrate, triggering the movement of the ossicles in the middle ear. Soundwaves are pushed further into the inner ear and this leads to the vibration of the cochlea. The hair cells and the fluid (in the cochlea) becomes activated and this movement helps convert the soundwaves into electric signals which the auditory nerve sends to the brain to process.

Impact of Loud Noise

Exposure to loud noise can be detrimental to your health by causing hearing loss. This happens through damaging critical parts of the hearing process. Loud noise most often impacts the hair cells in the cochlea. The louder the sound, the greater the vibrations of the ossicles and cochlea. Louder sound (more intense soundwaves) causes the hair cells and fluid to move more. Consistent intake of loud noise can cause hair cells to lose sensitivity (because of constant movement) and be permanent damaged. Humans are born with all the hair cells in the cochlea that we will ever have; unlike other types of cells, these cells do not regenerate. This means that any damage, sensory loss, is absolutely permanent.

Symptoms

Impaired hearing reduces one’s ability to pick up, amplify, and process sound. This significantly effects how a person engages in communication resulting in:

  • Needing others to repeat themselves
  • Speaking loudly (or shouting) to others who are near you
  • Frequently asking others to speak loudly or slowly
  • Experiencing tinnitus in one or both ears
  • Moving to quieter areas to have conversations
  • Speech and sound is muffled, especially in environments with background noise

These symptoms can take a significant toll on one’s health. Managing both personal and professional responsibilities can become challenging. This can lead to stress, anxiety, and frustration as moving through your day feels more difficult.

Protect Your Hearing

There are a few ways that you can protect your ears and hearing including the following:

  • Determine if noise level is hazardous: you can do this by using a sound level meter app on your phone or asking a supervisor to check the noise level. You want to make sure that the noise is below 85 decibels.
  • Wear protective gear: there are various options of ear protection such as earplugs, headphones, earmuffs etc. This reduces the amount of loud noise your ears absorb.
  • Take listening breaks: allows the hair cells in the cochlea to have time to rest and recover from all the movement caused by loud noise.
  • Reduce Exposure: look into using equipment or machinery that is quieter, place some kind of physical barrier between the source of the loud noise and yourself, reduce the amount of time (if you can) in or near the source etc.

Being proactive about your hearing health, especially if you are exposed to loud noise in the workplace is crucial!