We are surrounded by noise at home and at work: horns, sirens, buzz saws, and mowers, not to mention the beeps, booms, and music that stream from our personal electronic gadgets. Much of the noise that surrounds us is harmless, but some is loud enough to permanently damage our ears.
Approximately 10 million Americans now suffer from irreversible noise-induced hearing loss. Another 30 million are exposed every day to noise levels that can pose a threat to their hearing.
Noise-induced hearing loss is the result of damage to the sensitive hair cells of the inner ear. This damage can be caused either by a short, but extreme, burst of sound or by continuous exposure to noise.
A loud noise of short duration—a rock concert, for example—can cause temporary problems like a ringing or stuffiness in your ears. These usually go away rather quickly once the sound stops. Long-term exposure to noise, even at lower levels, is more likely to cause permanent hearing loss.
We measure the intensity of sound in decibels (dB). A decibel level high enough to cause damage during one exposure would typically need to be above 120—a jet taking off is about this level. However, with long-term exposure, hearing loss can occur even if the decibel level is as low as 85. As the level of noise increases, the time period before damage is done decreases if nothing is done to prevent hearing loss. (See “Safety Zone,” page 31, for more information on decibel levels.)
In most cases, hearing loss is gradual, so a worker might not be aware there is a problem until it becomes severe. Regular assessment of workplace noise levels and annual hearing tests for employees can help determine whether or not a hazard exists. Symptoms of hearing loss to watch for include:
- Muffled or distorted hearing
- Difficulty hearing sounds such as birds singing, crickets chirping, alarm clocks, watch alarms, telephones, or doorbells
- Difficulty understanding speech during telephone conversations or while participating in group conversations
- Pain or ringing in the ears (tinnitus) after exposure to excessively loud sounds
Not dealing with the risks associated with workplace noise can be expensive. An accepted hearing loss claim can range between $20,000 and $35,000, compared to all other accepted claims, which typically fall within a range of $3,000 to $8,000. But the isolation and depression that often accompany hearing loss also add a very real human cost.
If you have hearing loss
What you might hear when someone says, “Our office is on the twelfth floor”: “Our o i i on e wel lor.”
This article is from the spring 2011 issue of Comp News. See other articles from this publication.