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

In the US, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially damaging noise, and an approximated 242 million dollars is expended every year 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 occupations, displaying that exposure to sounds above a certain level steadily heightens your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.

How loud is too loud?

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

It appears that 85-90 decibels is the ceiling for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the full story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That means 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 noticeable, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the threshold for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells arises at 180 decibels. It’s the region between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be expected, the vocations with increasingly louder decibel levels have increasingly higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table reports, as the decibel levels connected with each profession 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 occupation with decibel levels above 90 places its personnel at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In every instance, as the decibel level rises, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss skyrockets.

Protecting your hearing

A recent US study on the prevalence of hearing loss in farming revealed that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were subjected to dangerous noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection devices on a daily basis. Factory workers, in comparison, tend to conform to more stringent hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate of hearing loss is slightly lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite exposure to near equivalent decibel volumes.

All of the data point to one thing: the significance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk occupation, you need to take the right protective steps. If avoiding the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to reduce the noise levels (best achieved with custom earplugs), in addition to making sure that you take recurrent rest breaks for your ears. Reducing both the sound volume and exposure time will decrease your chances of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss.

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