There are many sounds that can potentially cause hearing loss. While there are many in our day to day lives we can actively avoid or cut down our exposure to, such as loud music, working in a loud environment can lead to daily exposure to noise that may be loud enough to damage your hearing over time. When working in loud environments, it is important to counteract the noise levels as best as you can to help protect your hearing.
How Loud is Too Loud?
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the potential for hearing damage starts at about 80-85 decibels, which can cause hearing damage after 2 hours of exposure. This includes noise from things like leaf blowers, gas-powered lawnmowers, and other similar equipment. The 90-95 decibel range, which includes things like motorcycles, can cause damage after 50 minutes of exposure. The length of time before damage shrinks exponentially from here, leading to possible hearing loss after just 15 minutes at 100, 5 minutes at 105-110, less than 2 minutes at 115, and almost immediate pain and injury for anything above that. Considering that 115 decibels are comparable to shouting or barking in your ear, it doesn’t take much to potentially damage your hearing.
Testing for Hearing Loss
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if you have hearing loss. There are a few telltale signs, such as raising the volume on your TV or radio higher than you used to, or if certain pitches or tones sound muffled. Having difficulty hearing people speaking to you is also another indicator you may have suffered some kind of hearing damage. Karen McQuaide, expert audiologist of New Jersey, notes that hearing loss oftentimes is a gradual process, and most people either are unaware that their hearing is impaired or notice a change but question if it really is hearing loss or if it is being caused by something else like the onset of an ear infection or fluid build-up. Consumer Reports report that the average person should get their hearing tested around every 10 years or so after early childhood and then every 3 years after age 50.
Types of Noises
If you are constantly in an environment with noise reaching 80 decibels or higher, it is extremely important to protect your ears and prevent hearing loss. While most noise over 80 decibels can potentially cause damage, some noises are more dangerous than others. Intermittent noises with abrupt starts and stops, for example, are more dangerous than constant noise. This is because your body actively dampens the nervous response to a droning noise as it acclimates. With intermittent noise like hammering, the body doesn’t have the time to adjust and desensitize the nerve response to the sound.
Ear Protection Devices
While it can be best to prevent damage through avoidance, such as keeping your distance from the source of the loudest noises or periodically leaving the area, when these dangerously loud sounds come from your work environment you don’t always have that luxury. This is where protective devices come into play. There are a variety of protective devices that can be used to protect your hearing, each with their own noise reduction rating. While combining some devices can help reduce sound further, the noise reduction ratings do not add together, so take that into account when finding the devices which might work best for you. Some examples of noise-reducing devices include:
Earplugs are a great way to reduce sound levels reaching your eardrums. By completely blocking the auditory canal, earplugs block the sound vibrations traveling down the ear canal. You still get some supplementary hearing through vibrations traveling through the bones of your skull, primarily the external acoustic meatus. Since over 90% of the sound we hear comes from the vibrations travelling through the auditory canal, earplugs can greatly reduce the sound levels at work, and play a large role in preventing hearing loss.
Earmuffs work similarly to earplugs, but create an external covering as opposed to an internal one. The earmuffs press firmly against the sides of your head, creating an airtight pocket around your ears. The barrier from the earmuffs along with other components such as the material the earmuff is made out of, externally blocks the soundwaves from reaching your auditory canal. The only downside with earmuffs is that they don’t work for everyone. People who wear glasses or who have high beards or thick sideburns might not find earmuffs effective, as the glasses or facial hair can create gaps between the earmuffs and the side of the head, greatly reducing the effectiveness.
Level-Dependent Noise Reduction Headphones:
These headphones work best in environments where the loud noises are intermittent. These headphones essentially pick up a change in decibel levels and dampen the loud noises, but allow for normal hearing in quieter settings when the noise level returns to normal. These are especially good for hunters or marksmen, who tend to be in environments that are extremely quiet except for when they pull the trigger.
Lightweight Active Noise Cancelling Headphones:
These headphones are great in dealing with consistent low pitch droning sounds, such as running machinery, engines, the drone of an airplane, and the like. They help reduce the low pitch noises while allowing you to still hear higher pitch sounds like human speech. Note that these headphones do not have a noise reduction rating, as they only are effective up to a certain pitch.
What if I Have Hearing Loss?
If you work in an environment with loud noises and have not used hearing protection, or if you feel you may be suffering from hearing loss (tinnitus can be a symptom of this), contact a hearing specialist to get a hearing test done. Once you have had your hearing tested, your specialist can work with you to come up with the best treatment options and preventive measures to help reduce and further damage.