It’s typical to think of hearing loss as an inescapable problem linked with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s constant use of iPods. But the numbers show that the larger problem may be exposure to loud noise at work.

In the US, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially damaging noise, and an estimated 242 million dollars is spent yearly on worker’s compensation claims for hearing loss, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

What’s more is that higher rates of hearing loss are found in progressively noisier occupations, suggesting that exposure to sounds over a certain level progressively raises your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in your life.

How loud is too loud?

A study conducted by Audicus found that, of those who were not exposed to occupational noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent suffered from noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In comparison, construction workers, who are persistently subjected to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, suffered with noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!

It seems that 85-90 decibels is the ceiling for safe sound levels, but that’s not the whole story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That signifies that as you raise the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level nearly doubles. So 160 decibels is not two times as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!

Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is scarcely perceptible, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the limit for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing tissue starts at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be predicted, the occupations with progressively louder decibel levels have steadily higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table shows, as the decibel levels connected with each profession increase, hearing loss rates increase as well:

OccupationDecibel levelIncidence rates of hearing loss at age 50
No noise exposureLess than 90 decibels9%
Manufacturing105 decibels30%
Farming105 decibels36%
Construction120 decibels60%

Any occupation with decibel levels above 90 places its personnel at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In every instance, as the decibel level increases, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss rises with it.

Protecting your hearing

A recent US study on the prevalence of hearing loss in farming found that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were exposed to hazardous noise levels, but that only 44 percent reported to use hearing protection devices on a day-to-day basis. Factory workers, in comparison, tend to stick to to more stringent hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the frequency of hearing loss is slightly lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite exposure to near equivalent decibel volumes.

All of the data point to one thing: the necessity of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk occupation, you need to take the right protective steps. If avoiding the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to reduce the noise levels (best attained with custom earplugs), in addition to ensuring that you take regular rest breaks for your ears. Controlling both the sound volume and exposure time will lower your chances of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to discuss a hearing protection plan for your specific circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide individualized solutions to best safeguard your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to defending your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can preserve the natural quality of sound (as opposed to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).