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

In the US, 22 million workers are subjected to potentially hazardous noise, and an estimated 242 million dollars is paid 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 increasingly noisier occupations, displaying that being exposed to sounds above a certain level progressively raises your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in life.

How loud is too loud?

A study carried out by Audicus revealed that, of those who were not exposed to work-related noise levels above 90 decibels, only 9 percent experienced 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 appears that 85-90 decibels is the ceiling for safe sound levels, 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 roughly 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 hardly noticeable, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, the threshold for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing tissue happens at 180 decibels. It’s the region between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be predicted, the jobs with increasingly 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 occupation 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 workers at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In every case, as the decibel level rises, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss grows.

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 subjected to unsafe noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection equipment on a everyday basis. Factory workers, in contrast, tend to adhere to more stringent hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the incidence rate 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 importance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a risky job, you need to take the right preventive measures. If circumventing the noise is not an option, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best attained with custom earplugs), in addition to making sure that you take consistent rest breaks for your ears. Controlling both the sound volume and exposure time will reduce your chances of developing noise-induced hearing loss.

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