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It’s popular to think of hearing loss as an inescapable problem associated with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s regular use of iPods. But the numbers show that the greater problem may be direct exposure to loud noise at work.

In the United States, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially harmful noise, and a projected 242 million dollars is expended yearly on worker’s compensation claims for hearing loss, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

What’s more is that higher rates of hearing loss are found in progressively noisier professions, showing that exposure to sounds above a certain level steadily raises your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in your life.

How loud is too loud?

A study carried out by Audicus revealed that, of those who were not exposed to work-related noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent suffered from noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In contrast, construction workers, who are constantly exposed to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, suffered with noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!

It seems that 85-90 decibels is the threshold for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the entire story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That signifies that as you increase the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level just about doubles. So 160 decibels is not two times as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!

Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is barely detectable, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the limit for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells starts at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be predicted, the careers with progressively louder decibel levels have increasingly higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table indicates, as the decibel levels connected with each occupation increase, hearing loss rates increase as well:

OccupationDecibel levelIncidence rates of hearing loss at age 50
No noise exposureLess than 90 decibels9%
Manufacturing105 decibels30%
Farming105 decibels36%
Construction120 decibels60%

Any profession with decibel levels above 90 places its workers at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In every case, as the decibel level increases, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss rises with it.

Protecting your hearing

A recent US study on the prevalence of hearing loss in farming found that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were subjected to damaging noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection equipment on a routine basis. Factory workers, in comparison, tend to stick to to more stringent hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is moderately lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite being exposed to similar decibel levels.

All of the data point to one thing: the importance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk occupation, you need to take the right preventative steps. If avoiding the noise is not an option, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best accomplished with custom earplugs), in addition to ensuring that you take recurrent rest breaks for your ears. Reducing both the sound volume and exposure time will minimize your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to consider a hearing protection plan for your unique circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide tailored solutions to best safeguard your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to protecting your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can preserve the natural quality of sound (as opposed to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).