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Ten Ways Your Hearing is Damaged at Work

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous occupational noise each year. Noise exposure can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus, two permanent conditions with no known cure.

Regulations require the use of hearing protection whenever hazardous occupational noise is present, to reduce workers’ noise exposure and prevent auditory damage.

When hearing protection is used correctly, it does a great job of keeping workers safe.  However, noise is not the only culprit when it comes to hearing loss. 

Here are ten workplace situations when your hearing is at risk, and ways to protect yourself and your workers.

1.       Industrial Noise

It’s no surprise that noise is first on this list. The CDC estimates that 24% of hearing loss in the U.S. is due to workplace noise exposure. Always wear hearing protection when hazardous noise is present.  If you experience even temporary symptoms, such as muffled hearing or ringing in the ears at the end of the workday, this is a sign that damage is being done to the auditory system.  Make sure your hearing protection is appropriate for your work conditions, and that it is being worn correctly.

2.       Improper use of hearing protection

There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to hearing protection.  Each worker is different, with unique ear anatomy, job requirements, noise environment, and personal preferences. One of the best ways to make sure hearing protection is being worn properly is through individual fit-testing.  Fit-testing measures the actual attenuation that a given worker can achieve with a particular hearing protector.  Fit-testing is also a great training tool to help workers learn to get a good fit every time.

3.       Not taking breaks

Noise exposure depends on both the noise level and the duration of the exposure.  When working in hazardous noise, it can be helpful to take quiet breaks.  This can include going to a quiet break area or swapping tasks with a coworker at a quieter work station.

4.       Ototoxic chemicals

Many chemicals are “ototoxic”, meaning that they can damage the auditory system and cause hearing loss and tinnitus. Damage can be caused by inhaling ototoxic vapors, or by making skin contact with toxic substances. Use proper hand and respiratory protection whenever potentially toxic chemicals are present. 

5.       Medication

Certain medications are also ototoxic and can damage hearing and/or cause tinnitus. These medications include prescription drugs like antibiotics, diuretics, and cancer treatments, as well as some over-the-counter pain-relievers. Try to use over-the-counter medications sparingly. If pain is being caused by poor ergonomic conditions, be sure to address those issues as well.  If you think a prescription medication is causing hearing problems, talk to your doctor about other options.

6.       Loud Music

While there are many benefits to listening to music on the job (increased productivity, reduced stress, and improved mental well-being), if the music is too loud, it can also cause damage.  If music is played over speakers in an open area, the same rules can be applied as with any noise - if you have to shout over it to be heard, it’s too loud.  If workers are using earbuds, limit the volume setting to about 60% of the maximum to maintain safe listening levels. 

Avoid playing music if loud noise is present, this will only encourage you to turn the music up to unsafe levels. An even better option is to use an audio-enabled hearing protector. The protector will attenuate environmental noise, so you won’t need to turn up the music too loud. In addition, they will limit the output of the music under the protector to generally safe levels.

7.       Aging

Although we can’t stop aging, there are ways to slow down some of the effects. As with other age-related illnesses, the best prevention for hearing loss due to aging tends to be a proper diet and exercise. A diet high in nutrients which includes fruits and vegetables can help the auditory system maintain its health throughout the lifetime. Exercise can help circulate nutrient-rich blood to the auditory system, so it can function optimally.

8.       Untreated health problems

There are several health problems that can contribute to hearing loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is important to treat these issues to prevent further damage to the auditory system. Untreated hearing loss can also contribute to other poor health outcomes, like a higher risk of dementia, making it all the more important to protect your hearing.

9.       Smoking

Smoking tobacco has been linked to hearing issues, and may exacerbate the damage caused by noise.  Discouraging smoking at work (and at home) can help prevent hearing loss, as well as the other known consequences.

10.   Mental health issues

Living with chronic tinnitus has been known to cause depression and anxiety, but mental and emotional stressors can also exacerbate tinnitus.  It is just as important to care for one’s mental health as it is to care for one’s physical health. Provide resources for workers who may be feeling the effects of stress, or experiencing poor mental health.

During this year’s National Protect Your Hearing Month, learn more about  hearing conservation.

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Jackie DiFrancesco is Deputy Lab Manager of the Howard Leight Acoustical Testing Laboratory at Honeywell. She is involved with the testing of hearing protectors to regional test protocols, and ongoing research to support product development and expand the profession’s knowledge base. She is also an audiology doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut. Jackie has experience in clinical audiology, industrial audiology, and is a certified occupational hearing conservationist. Her research interests include finding better hearing protection solutions for workers with hearing loss.