Did you know that hearing loss is the third most common chronic health problem in the U.S., following hypertension and arthritis, and is one of the most common work-related injuries? Hearing loss can disrupt the normal activities of daily life, decrease the overall quality of life, and pose safety risks at home and at work.
What causes hearing loss?
Hearing loss occurs when the small hairs in the inner ear that pick up sound become damaged. Once the small hairs in the inner ear are damaged, there is no way to reverse the damage and hearing loss.
The inner ear damage that leads to hearing loss can happen in a variety of ways, but the most common cause of hearing loss is exposure to too much intense noise over too much time (85 decibels or greater for 8 or more hours). Common noises in your daily living environment can be damaging, such as city traffic, lawnmowers, power tools, sporting events, and even the volume of your personal listening device. Work environments can also pose hearing hazards to workers. Industries commonly at risk for occupational hearing loss include agriculture, construction, manufacturing, mining, entertainment, aerospace, and emergency medical and fire services. In the United States, about 40 million adults (ages 20 – 69) have hearing loss due to noise.
Hearing loss can also be caused by medicines and chemicals that are ototoxicants. Examples of ototoxic chemicals include solvents (e.g., styrene), metals and compounds (e.g., lead, mercury compounds, organic tin compounds), asphyxiants (e.g., carbon monoxide), nitriles (e.g., acrylonitrile), and medications containing antineoplastic agents.
About a quarter of people who report excellent-to-good hearing already have some damage to their hearing. Men and people over the age of 40 are at a greater risk of experiencing hearing loss.
What is a dangerous noise level?
Sound is measured in decibels; the higher the number of decibels, the more intense the sound.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has established a recommended limit for exposure to sound over an 8-hour time period. The Recommended Exposure Limit set by NIOSH is 85 decibels over an 8-hour time period. This means that noise exposure at or above 85 decibels over an 8-hour time period is considered hazardous for your hearing.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has established legal limits for noise exposure. OSHA’s permissible exposure level is 90 decibels over an 8-hour workday. The permissible exposure level will vary based on the hours worked in a day and the noise exposure levels.
How can I prevent hearing loss?
The best way to prevent noise-related hearing loss is to protect your ears.
- Avoid noisy areas.
- Always use earplugs, ear muffs, or noise-canceling headphones when in noisy areas.
- Keep the volume down when using stereo systems, headphones, or earbuds.
- Always use hearing protection when using loud motorized equipment.
- Always use hearing protection when working in noisy areas: Follow the rules outlined in your company’s hearing conservation program. A hearing conservation program is a program developed by companies to help prevent hearing loss from work-related noise exposure. See OSHA’s resource on creating a hearing conservation program.
NIOSH developed a sound level meter app that can be used to determine noise levels. This app was developed and tested by acoustic engineers and hearing loss experts and can provide valuable information such as what noise levels are dangerous, how to use hearing protection, how to prevent hearing loss, and how to test noise levels in an area. You can visit the CDC NIOSH page for more information on the app.
Earplugs and earmuffs have a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). These ratings are used by companies along with NIOSH and OSHA recommendations to determine which hearing protection should be used in a particular work environment. If you are using hearing protection for noisy activities outside of work, check with your healthcare provider to get recommendations on what sort of hearing protection is best for you.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention: Preventing Hearing Loss,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/preventhearingloss/default.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention: NIOSH Sound Level Meter App,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/app.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention: Guidance and Regulations,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/reducenoiseexposure/regsguidance.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention: Hearing Loss Prevention Programs,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/preventhearingloss/hearlosspreventprograms.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL) Surveillance: Facts and Definitions,” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ohl/default.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Too Loud! For Too Long!,” https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/hearingloss/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “What If I Already Have Hearing Loss?” https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/what_if_i_already_have_hearing_loss.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “What Noises Cause Hearing Loss?” https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/what_noises_cause_hearing_loss.html