We encounter many sounds at various decibels every day and most are safe to our ears. However, noises that are especially loud or very loud for an extended period of time, such as industrial noises, can do significant and sometimes long-term damage to hearing. This damage can affect one or both ears, causing sounds to become muffled and distorted.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that about 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise each year. In addition, it reports that 24 percent of hearing difficulty among U.S. workers is caused by occupational exposure. For many U.S. workers, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) starts affecting their hearing, and quality of life, at a younger age.

Causes of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is caused when the ears are exposed to loud, lasting noises that cause permanent damage to normal ear function. It can be caused by either a one-time exposure to an intense sound, such as an explosion, engine backfire, or microphone or speaker squeal.

The real damage occurs with sustained, moderately high noise that occurs over a long period. Workers who spend prolonged periods riding in a tractor, working around heavy machinery or lawn care equipment, or listening to loud music over headphones are at risk for hearing loss.

Who It Affects

Noise-induced hearing loss can affect anyone at any age. Current estimates indicate that 26 million Americans ages 20-69 are affected by NIHL. Hearing loss isn’t just inconvenient, nor should it be embarrassing. Noise-induced hearing loss is common in the workplace, and can even be dangerous in high-risk environments.

Studies show that workers with hearing loss often have trouble localizing sounds or hearing warning signals, which leads to increased accidents. NIHL also puts a strain on workplace relationships, leading to mistakes and increases in miscommunication.

Signs of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss usually happens gradually and it may be hard to detect a significant difference in hearing until it becomes obvious. Many people do not know they are suffering from occupational hearing loss because it develops over time. Keep in mind that noise does not have to be extremely loud to cause NIHL. Most occupational hearing loss happens at levels just loud enough to do damage to hearing, but not at levels causing noticeable discomfort.

As hearing loss increases, you may notice sounds becoming distorted or muffled, and it may be difficult to understand what people are saying. Exposing your ears to loud noise can also cause tinnitus – constant ringing, buzzing or roaring in the ears.

High-Risk Careers

Jobs that put workers at the most risk for hearing loss include:

  • Construction workers
  • Manufacturing employees
  • Farm workers

In addition to working with high decibel heavy machinery for long periods, these workers are exposed to a lot of environmental noise like hammering, drills, animal noise and the constant hum of manufacturing lines.

Teachers are also at high risk for NIHL. Slamming lockers, bells ringing, sporting and music events, children playing – all of these factors can increase a teacher’s risk of NIHL.

Military personnel and the Department of Veterans Affairs report that NIHL is the most common injury of returning war veterans. Data collected by the VA shows that as many as 52 percent of combat soldiers have moderately severe hearing loss or worse due to the loud sounds associated with combat.

Police officers and first responders are often exposed to extremely high decibel noises that can damage hearing in a short amount of time, and prolonged levels of moderately high decibels that damage hearing over time. Crowds and large events, sirens, gunfire, and the general mayhem of emergency situations all contribute to increased risk of NIHL for these workers.

Regular Hearing Screening is Key

Anyone at high risk for hearing loss should take precautions to protect their hearing and get regular hearing screenings. If you believe you may suffer hearing loss, schedule an appointment with a hearing health professional to get your hearing tested and to discuss treatment options.