It’s common to think of hearing loss as an unavoidable problem connected with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s routine use of iPods. But the numbers indicate that the bigger problem may be direct exposure to loud noise at work.

In the United States, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially unsafe noise, and an approximated 242 million dollars is expended 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, demonstrating that direct exposure to sounds above 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 discovered that, of those who were not exposed to occupational noise levels over 90 decibels, only 9 percent experienced noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In contrast, construction workers, who are repeatedly exposed to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, suffered from noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!

It seems that 85-90 decibels is the limit for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the complete story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That signifies that as you increase the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level approximately doubles. So 160 decibels is not twice as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!

Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is barely perceptible, regular conversation is about 60 decibels, the limit for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells happens at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be anticipated, the professions with increasingly louder decibel levels have progressively higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table demonstrates, as the decibel levels associated 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 profession with decibel levels above 90 places its workforce 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 each 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 discovered that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were exposed to harmful noise levels, but that only 44 percent reported to use hearing protection devices on a routine basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to adhere to more rigid hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the frequency of hearing loss is slightly lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite subjection to near equivalent decibel levels.

All of the data point to one thing: the significance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a risky job, you need to take the right preventive steps. If staying away from the noise is not an alternative, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best attained with custom earplugs), in addition to ensuring that you take consistent 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 particular situation or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide personalized solutions to best protect your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to defending your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can maintain the natural quality of sound (in contrast to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).