Hearing Safety

DeWalt Interceptor Folding Earmuff

DeWalt Interceptor Folding Earmuff

Industrial machinery. Heavy construction equipment. Power tools. Aircrafts. Gunfire. Motorcycles. Race tracks. Dental drills. Sporting events. Fireworks. Rock concerts. Marching bands. Yard equipment.

All involve people. All involve loud noise. And, potentially, all contribute to hearing loss.

While a single event – like a firecracker or rock concert – can lead to ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and hearing loss, repeated exposure to loud noises are more likely to lead to permanent hearing loss.

Hearing loss affects 1 in 10 Americans and is mostly age-related and unpreventable. However, it can also be caused by the cumulative effects of excessive noise exposure, which IS PREVENTABLE.

The workplace often presents significant potential for hearing loss. OSHA offers the following regarding hearing safety in the workplace:

  • Approximately 30 million people in the United States are exposed to hazardous noise.
  • Noise-related hearing loss is one of the most prevalent work-related health concerns and has been for 25 years.
  • Thousands of workers suffer yearly from hearing loss due to workplace noise.

And that’s in addition to the individuals suffering hearing loss from noise encountered outside of work.

How Ears are Damaged

According to Noise & Hearing Protection, “When noise is too loud, it begins to kill the nerve endings in the inner ear. Prolonged exposure to loud noise destroys nerve endings. As the number of nerve endings decreases, so does your hearing. There is no way to restore life to dead nerve endings; the damage is permanent. The longer you are exposed to a loud noise, the more damaging it may be. Also, the closer you are to the source of intense noise, the more damaging it is.”

In other words, ears are damaged over time, and damage depends on amount, length and intensity of exposure to noise.

Identifying Hearing Loss & Its Causes

Because hearing loss is painless and gradual, you might not notice it. So how can you tell?

  1. You might notice a ringing or other sound in your ear (tinnitus)
  2. You may have trouble understanding what people say.
  3. People may seem to be mumbling, especially when surrounded by other noise.
  4. Speech or music sounds muffled when you leave a noisy situation but fairly clear the next morning.

Protect Your Hearing

Obviously, noise cannot be completely eliminated. But, there are some simple approaches to reduce the risk of cumulative hearing loss.

  1. Wear earplugs and/or earmuffs. Wear hearing protection when working in an excessively noisy environment, when using power tools and lawn equipment, when firing a gun, and when riding a motorcycle or snowmobile.
  2. Be sure to choose the right kind of hearing protection.Combating Common Objections to Hearing Protection wear says that “the right kind of hearing protection brings noise levels to a point where they won’t cause damage but necessary sounds like conversations can still be heard.”
  3. Wear hearing protection consistently. Finding the right size and type of gear is important to increase the chance consistency.
  4. Turn down the sound. Decrease volume when possible (radio, television, etc.).
  5. Give your ears a break. If you’ve just vacuumed, wait a while before mowing the lawn.
  6. Enjoy silence. Give your ears regular breaks not just from loud noise but from any significant noise. Noise can not only affect your hearing; Noise and Hearing Protection notes that it can have a significant impact on your overall health too.
  7. Increase your awareness of noise exposure. Think about how much noise enters your day, and reduce its affects by incorporating the above tips.

How do you know if a noise is too loud? Common sense mostly, but use your arms if you’re not sure. If someone is standing at arm’s length away and you have to shout to make yourself heard, then the noise around you is probably damaging your ears.

Healthy Hearing explains that protecting yourself from hearing loss needs the same approach as protecting your skin from sun damage. They say to “remember, hearing loss is based on the cumulative effect of loud noise throughout a lifetime so, like wearing sunscreen and staying in the shade, wear ear plugs when doing yard work or whenever you know you’re going to be exposed to the roar of a riding mower for more than a few minutes.”

Prevent Hearing Damage with Proper Ear Protection

Man wearing earmuffs

Wearing proper hearing protection is critical in loud environments

Hear ye, hear ye! (While ye still can . . . ) Hearing loss is irreversible! That means preventing hearing damage is critical before it’s too late.

We “hear” when specialized hair cells in our middle ear convert sound waves into electrical signals and send them to our brain. Sounds that are too loud cause these hair cells to become overstimulated and die. The longer our exposure, and/or the greater the noise, the more hair cells are killed off. As the number of living hair cells decreases, so does our ability to hear.

When Should You Wear Ear Protection?
The loudness of a sound is measured in decibels [dB] and relates to the degree of the pressure the sound waves create. The faintest sound the human ear can perceive is 0 dB, up to a maximum of 180 dB, the noise from a rocket launch. Normal conversation at 3–5 feet is about 60 decibels. Many experts agree that continual exposure to more than 85 decibels is dangerous. Shop tools and truck traffic are approximately 90 decibels; while a power mower, a chainsaw, a pneumatic drill, and a snowmobile are all just over 100 decibels. Sandblasting, power saws, and loud rock concerts are approximately 115 decibels. A gun blast and a jet engine would each be examples of 140 decibels — and at this level, even short term exposure can cause permanent damage. In fact, 140 decibels is the loudest recommended noise exposure with hearing protection. Instantaneous death of hearing tissue occurs at 180 decibels.

Ear protection effectiveness becomes greatly reduced when it doesn’t fit properly, or is worn only part of the time during noise exposure, so it’s imperative that you find the right kind of hearing protection for you, and commit to wearing it correctly and consistently.

What Types of Hearing Protection are Available?
There are two main kinds of ear protection:

  • Ear plugs come in a multitude of styles and are inserted into the ear canal to block incoming noise. Ear plugs may be connected by a cord or cordless, pre-molded or moldable, and disposable or reusable. Banded earplugs (also called semi-insert ear plugs) consist of two ear plugs connected by a rigid headband. Regardless of which style you prefer, ear plugs are the most comfortable for hot, damp work areas; plus, they’re simple to use, economical, and effective.
  • Ear muffs are made of noise-suppressing materials, soft cushioning that encompasses the entire ear, and a hard outer shell. They are held in place by a band which either goes over the top of, or around the back of the head. Ear muffs are very comfortable and come in a variety of styles and colors. Electronic ear muffs are available with high-tech features, such as radios, microphones, and impulse filters for sudden loud noises, like gun fire. Overall, ear muffs provide greater protection than ear plugs; plus, they’re easier to fit and generally more durable. They also have replaceable parts.

How To Choose the Right Hearing Protection
The choice of ear protection is a personal one and depends on a number of factors, including fit and comfort; but most importantly, your noise reduction needs. If the noise you’re dealing with is intermittent, ear muffs are a better choice, since it may be inconvenient to continually remove and re-insert earplugs. In areas where noise levels are very high, however, ear muffs and ear plugs can be worn together to offer the most protection possible.

How Do I Care for My Ear Protection?
Always start by following the manufacturer’s recommendations for whether or not your ear plugs or ear muffs are washable. If so, take your ear muffs apart, then use a a soft brush, mild liquid detergent, and warm water to remove oil and dirt that can harden ear cushions. Ensure that sound-reducing materials inside do not get wet. Rinse in clear warm water. Squeeze excess moisture from the cushions and then allow them to air dry.

Check your ear protection regularly for wear and tear, and replace ear cushions or ear plugs when they’re no longer soft or pliable. Replace ear muffs when the head band is over-stretched and no longer keeps the ear cushions snug against your head.

Hearing loss usually develops over a period of many years, and since it is painless and gradual, you might not even notice it until you realize you’re having trouble understanding what people say, especially in a noisy place, like a party. Of course, it’s best to not let it come to that, but if needed, a physician specializing in hearing disorders (called a otolaryngologist or otologist) can diagnose your hearing problem and recommend the best way to manage it.