An estimated 22 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Occupational hearing loss (OHL) is the third most common chronic physical condition among adults, after hypertension and arthritis – and it’s proven costly for employers. American businesses pay an estimated $242 million annually in workers compensation claims tied to hearing loss, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, and NIOSH, insurers, and various nonprofits, are spreading the word about hearing health.
Hearing loss can cause stress, decrease job performance, and increase the risk of on-the-job injuries, according to a survey by the U.S. National Council on Aging.
The overall cost of hearing loss approaches $133 billion per year in the U.S., according to a study titled “Hearing Loss – Numbers and Costs,” commissioned by Hear-it, a nonprofit that promotes hearing health.
Factory workers, musicians, farmers, dental workers, construction workers, coaches and game officials, military personnel, and first responders frequently experience hazardous noise levels, according to NIOSH.
“Hearing loss also has surprising links to overall health,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital BlueCross. “People with hearing loss face an increased risk of disability and dementia, and men with hearing problems face an increased risk of depression,” she said, citing research from a study by researchers from the University of Bordeaux in France.
The threat of hearing loss does not end when we clock out.
Loud music, crowd noise, traffic noise, and other seemingly normal sounds slowly chip away our hearing health, experts say.
The widely accepted tipping point for noise is 85 decibels. Normal conversation registers between 60 and 70 decibels while fireworks or gunshots can soar to ear-splitting levels of 140 or 150 decibels.
Every 3-decibel increase above 85 decibels reduces safe exposure time by half, experts say. A person pushing a lawnmower registering between 90 and 110 decibels would risk hearing damage in less than 30 minutes.
Sound readings are easy to get these days. Anyone with a smartphone can download free noise meter app, including NIOSH Sound Level Meter.
“The world can be a noisy place,” Dr. Chambers said. “The best advice for employers and workers is to take sensible precautions and to learn more about hazardous noise exposure.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is a good place to start. NIOSH recommends things like ear protection, identifying dangerously noisy areas, and annual hearing exams to determine employees’ baseline hearing ability.
NIOSH’s “Buy Quiet,” initiative encourages machine makers to design quieter tools, and machine users to buy or rent quieter tools for their employees. It even maintains a database of power tools ranked by how much noise they make.
While occupational hearing loss is not reversible, the risk of depression, disability, and dementia often associated with hearing loss can be reduced with the use of hearing aids, Chambers said, citing the results of the University of Bordeaux study.