Hearing Conservation

Is work-related hearing loss a major problem?

In the United States, hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition after high blood pressure and arthritis. It is more common than diabetes, vision trouble, or cancer. Not surprisingly, hearing loss is among the most common work-related illnesses. Over 11% of the working population has hearing difficulty, and nearly one out of four cases of worker hearing difficulty are caused by work-related exposures. These exposures include loud noise and chemicals causing damage to the inner ear (ototoxic chemicals). Ototoxic chemicals include organic solvents like trichloroethylene, heavy metals like mercury and lead, and asphyxiants like carbon monoxide.

Noise is considered loud and potentially harmful (hazardous) when it reaches 85 decibels or higher, or if a person has to raise his/her voice to speak with someone 3 feet away (arm’s length).

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Did you know that within every industry sector, there are workers at risk for work-related hearing loss? Work-related hearing loss is common and preventable. Learn more about hearing loss within your industry and how to prevent it.

Which workers are at risk?

In the U.S. workplace:

  • About 22 million workers (17%) are exposed to hazardous noise each year;

  • An unknown number of workers are exposed to other ototoxic chemicals that can damage hearing.

  • About 10 million workers are exposed to solvents, which can damage hearing; and

There are workers in every industry sector that are exposed to noise or chemicals that can damage hearing or both.

Among all noise-exposed workers, 19% have hearing impairment. Hearing impairment is hearing loss that impacts day-to-day activities, such as making it difficult to understand speech. However, some industry sectors such as Mining and Construction have even higher percentages of workers with hearing impairment.

Learn more about worker hearing loss and noise exposure within your industry sector, including trends in hearing loss over time on the NIOSH Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance topic page under NIOSH OHL Statistics.

Why is prevention important?

  • Almost all work-related hearing loss is permanent, and it can have a profound impact on quality of life.

  • As hearing loss worsens, hearing and understanding others becomes increasingly more difficult, which can lead to isolation.
  • Hearing loss is associated with cognitive (mental) decline and heart problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Hearing loss is also strongly associated with depression.
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus), which often occurs along with hearing loss, can disrupt sleep and concentration and is associated with both depression and anxiety.
  • Safety can also be impacted at home and on the job.
  • Income is typically lower among hearing-impaired workers than among workers with normal hearing.
  • There are other effects, such as loss of enjoyment, when all of the sounds we want to hear (e.g., music, voice of loved one) become muted and lack quality.

Fortunately, with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technologies, work-related hearing loss can be entirely prevented.

What can workers do to prevent
work-related hearing loss?

  • Find out if the noise in your workspace is hazardous.

    • If you have to raise your voice to speak with someone at arm’s length, then the noise is likely at a hazardous level. Or check the noise level using a sound level meter app on your phone, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app.
  • Reduce your noise exposure:

    • Reduce noise at the source of the noise. Use quieter equipment and keep equipment well maintained and lubricated.
    • Enclose the source of the noise or place a barrier between you and the source.
    • Increase the distance between you and the source of the noise.
    • Reduce your time in noisy areas.
    • Always wear hearing protection in noisy areas, and if using foam plugs, insert them correctly.
    • If you are listening to music or something else, keep the volume at a safe level and only listen in areas that are not noisy.
  • Reduce or stop exposure to chemicals that may damage your hearing:

    • Use a less-toxic or non-toxic chemical.
    • Wear gloves, long sleeves, and eye protection.
    • Wear a respirator or other protective equipment, as appropriate.
    • Read and follow all chemical safety instructions.

Is work-related hearing loss a major problem?

Noise is everywhere, but how loud does it need to be to cause harm? While many people know that loud noise can hurt their ears, they don’t know how loud is too loud or how long they can listen before it becomes harmful.

Noise around 85 decibels (dBA)

loud enough that you must raise your voice to be heard by someone three feet away (arm’s length)

Can damage your hearing after repeated exposures lasting 8 hours or more. Equipment, like printing presses and lawn mowers, and activities like vacuuming, or using earbuds or headphones with the volume set around 70%, all average about 85-90 dBA

When noise reaches 95 dBA

loud enough that you must shout to be heard by
someone at arm’s length

It can put your hearing at risk in less than an hour. Bulldozers, ambulance sirens, chain saws, bars/nightclubs and large sporting events are all louder than 95 dBA

In addition to damaging hearing,
loud noise can cause other physical stress as well as mental stress

Often the short-term effects of such stress go unnoticed or are blamed on other things. These symptoms can range from feeling tired and/or irritable to having temporarily high blood pressure or muffled hearing. Over time, with repeated exposure to loud noise, more lasting conditions can develop, such as hearing loss (a permanent condition), and it is unknown if these exposures may also lead to more lasting cardiovascular conditions, such as high blood pressure.

Not only does noise cause hearing loss, there is new research exploring whether noise can also contribute to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. Recently, a new NIOSH study, titled “Cardiovascular Conditions, Hearing Difficulty, and Occupational Noise Exposure within U.S. Industries and Occupations,” looked into the relationship between loud noise at work and conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hearing difficulty. This study found:

  • Twenty-two million workers experience loud noise on the job each year.

  • Most hearing difficulty cases among workers (58%) were linked to loud noise on the job and could be prevented if the noise was reduced to safe levels.

  • Nine percent of high cholesterol and 14 percent of high blood pressure cases among workers could be linked to loud noise on the job.

  • Workers with a history of loud noise on the job were less likely to have had their blood pressure or their cholesterol checked.

Fortunately, workplace noise exposure faces reduction and occupational hearing loss entirely prevented with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technology. This NIOSH study also highlighted the importance of workers getting screened regularly for hearing loss, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and the benefits of workplace health and wellness programs. These programs generate a substantial return on investment by reducing losses in productivity from disease progression and boosting morale. Workers exposed to loud noise may especially benefit from these programs.

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