Hearing loss – often we think we know all about it already: what causes it, how to stop it from occurring, or that we’d never experience it because it only happens to older generations. But occupational hearing loss is very much something that happens to workers all around the world. In Australia alone, an estimated one million workers are consistently subjected to excessive noise or ototoxic chemicals in the workplace, which are the main factors that contribute to hearing loss at work.
Workers report moderate to severe hearing loss as a result of regular loud sound and noise exposure, and some even experience different levels of tinnitus because of these hazardous noise levels. Safework Australia deals with work health and safety (WHS) policies and workers’ compensation claims, and has found that there were thousands of workers’ compensation claims that were successful pertaining to permanent hearing loss due to occupational noise exposure.
But hearing loss can be preventable, and knowing how to protect your hearing at work can go a long way in ensuring that your ears do not experience noise-induced hearing loss. Employees such as labourers, tradespersons, and the like are the most likely to suffer hearing loss due to long term exposure of high sound levels. But even if you aren’t in these fields, it’s important to be mindful of sound level meters and other risk factors that can result in work related hearing loss while you are fulfilling your role: from constant, loud music, to a lack of protective devices for your ears, and so much more.
At Art of Hearing, we want you to know how to best maintain your hearing health for the years to come, so we’ve listed some tips on how to prevent hearing loss in the workplace as well as what you can do if you suspect that your hearing is becoming impaired.
Avoid intense sounds as much as possible
In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated that one of the main factors of hearing impairment in the workplace is the level of noise you have been exposed to, as well as how long the noise occurs for. Intense sounds can damage the ear faster, whether it’s a one-time occurrence, or constant exposure spread out across time.
To put this into context, noise that has been measured to be at or above 85 decibels (dB) over a span of eight hours is hazardous to your hearing. Intense sounds such as 100 dB can cause hearing damage in 15 minutes. Australian regulations include the conditions that workers should not be exposed to sudden loud noises louder than 140 decibels as a result as this level of noise can harm hearing immediately and permanently, and continuous loud noises must be below 85db over eight hours to prevent hearing damage.
This means that employers have an obligation to be mindful of the noise and sound vibrations produced by the machinery that they require their employees to use, and must go through the steps of eliminating hazards where they can. This might mean they need to utilise engineering controls to lessen the impact of noise, use substitution controls that emit less harmful sounds, and isolate the hazards by installing sound isolation booths and the like.
Utilise PPE to protect your hearing
While regulations are in place for employers to follow to ensure a safe workplace, there are also things that you, as a worker, can do to ensure your own occupational safety. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is only effective if workers comply and utilise them regularly, so it is important to be mindful of this small yet important way to protect your hearing.
PPE at the workplace should be tested and approved in accordance with Australian Standard AS/NZS 1270:2002: Acoustics – Hearing protectors, as well as selected and maintained as according to AS/NZS 1269.3:2005 Occupational noise management – hearing protector program.
PPE should always be worn when workers are exposed to hazardous noise, whether it’s earplugs or ear muffs. Audio headphones are no substitute for actual hearing PPE, and workers must be trained and fitted with their own hearing PPE to ensure effectiveness. So if your workplace has PPE, it’s not a suggestion: make sure to wear it and protect your hearing!
Check your hearing regularly with a hearing test
If the fine hair cells in your inner ear become damaged because of occupational noise levels, you’ll experience hearing loss. This can be a gradual process: often, people don’t realise that their hearing is impaired until years down the line, when there are limited options for relief. And if your auditory nerve is compromised, you may have to look into options such as hearing aids or implants to be able to hear and maintain your quality of life.
Wearing hearing protection aids is a must at work, especially if you have identified that there are intense noises that occur regularly, or find that there is a risk of sudden loud noises that can damage your hearing. However, wearing hearing protection aids is not enough: it’s also important to check your hearing regularly by seeing an audiologist who does comprehensive hearing tests.
We can often take our ears for granted. A hearing test, when done regularly, can help maintain healthy hearing even into old age, with possible hearing issues addressed early to prevent diminished hearing as soon as possible.