Occupational hearing hazards encompass factors in the workplace that are harmful to hearing health. This includes exposure to loud noise and ototoxic chemicals which can damage the auditory system – the sensory system for hearing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24% of all cases of hearing loss are caused by occupational hearing hazards.
This permanent type of hearing loss reduces capacity to hear and process speech as well as sound which can affect daily life in numerous ways. Hearing loss strains communication which is essential to how we navigate everyday environments, relationships, social life etc. Practicing strategies to reduce your risk of hearing loss is an important way to protect your hearing health.
What are Occupational Hearing Hazards?
Occupational hearing hazards are risk factors that can significantly contribute to the development of hearing loss. These factors are experienced in the workplace and two of the most common are:
- Loud Noise: The CDC estimates that 22 million people are exposed to hazardous levels of noise in the workplace. Noise above 85 decibels (dB) is considered potentially dangerous for hearing health. One time or consistent exposure to loud noise can cause noise induced hearing loss.
- Ototoxic Chemicals: this category of chemicals can irreparably damage hearing health. Ototoxic chemicals include metals, solvents, carbon monoxide, and numerous chemicals that can be found in things like household cleaning supplies. A range of activities that people do for work can expose them to concentrated levels of ototoxic chemicals. This includes: boat building, working in construction, firefighting, furniture making, painting and much more.
These occupational hearing hazards can cause hearing loss, exacerbate hearing loss symptoms, and make it challenging to successfully navigate the workplace.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss
The workplace is a common source of loud noise exposure. Loud noise can permanently damage the sensory cells in the inner ear. These cells can become desensitized and weakened by loud noise which prevents or reduces their ability to perform their crucial function. These sensory cells convert incoming sound waves into electrical signals which get carried to the brain. The brain is then able to further process and ascribe meaning to these signals allowing us to understand what we hear. There are 16,000 sensory cells in each ear. Unlike other types of cells we have, these cells do not regenerate. This means that humans are actually born with all the sensory cells in the inner ear that we will ever have. So any damage they experience is permanent, producing chronic hearing loss.
Noise that exceeds 85dB is hazardous for hearing health. This is equivalent to busy traffic and a hair dryer. According to experts, the maximum threshold for safe listening is 85dB for 8 hours in a day. If noise levels exceed this, exposure time needs to be significantly reduced. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s guidelines for safe listening recommends reducing exposure time by half for every 3 decibel increase (after 85dB):
- 85dB: 8 hours
- 88dB: 4 hours
- 91dB: 2 hours
- 94dB: 30min
Exceeding these thresholds can permanently damage hearing. This highlights the importance of taking the steps to protect your hearing in the workplace so you can prevent hearing loss.
Tips to Protect Hearing Health
There are effective ways you can mitigate the potential harm of occupational hearing hazards. Practicing the following strategies can help you protect your hearing health and navigate the workplace safely:
- Wear hearing protection. Headphones and earplugs are common forms of hearing protection that you can wear to reduce the amount of loud noise you absorb.
- Reduce exposure to ototoxic chemicals: There are numerous ways you can do this including: wearing a mask and gloves, reading and following the safety precautions on labels, open windows to support ventilation, avoid using chemicals you cannot use safely.
- Access workplace accommodations: Employers are required to provide accommodations to ensure that people can navigate the workplace safely. This can include resources, services, technologies, and protective gear. Be sure to discuss accommodations with your employer.
- Test hearing: having your hearing tested regularly allows you to monitor your hearing health. This can help you identify any changes you may experience and address them early.