“Can you speak up please? I can’t hear you!”

I think everyone will agree that we live in a noisy world.  Not only are most of us exposed to noise at work, but our leisure activities are also excessively loud!  Gardening, woodworking, motorcycles, Ipods, concerts, surround sound on our gigantic TV’s, hunting, boating – the list is endless!

Now days, the noise exposure at our work environments is monitored by NIOSH and OSHA.  Companies are required to do noise studies and control noise exposure when possible.  Hearing protection is made available and employees are required to use it.  Signs are posted in areas where noise is excessive warning employees to take extra precautions.

No one comes home with us and posts a sign on our vacuum cleaners and grass blowers to warn us that using them without hearing protection can cause hearing loss.  It is called NIHL – Noise Induced Hearing Loss. 

What ever your hobbies or leisure activities… extended exposure to excessive amounts of noise can result in permanent hearing loss.  In fact, excessive noise exposure is the leading cause of hearing loss today.

The ear is a miraculous and efficient organ!  Sound waves are collected by the outer ear and funneled through the ear canal to the eardrum.  Sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate.  The three bones of the middle ear transmit and amplify the vibrations to the oval window of the inner ear.  Fluid in the inner ear stimulates the nerve endings called hair cells.  Electrical impulses are sent from the hair cells along the auditory nerve to the brain.  The tiny hair cells in the inner ear are easily damaged by loud noise and once you loose them, they never grow back!

The symptoms of hearing loss are:

  • Hearing but not understanding
  • Turning up the volume on the TV
  • Must lip read to understand speech, as well as constantly asking people to repeat themselves or saying “Huh”.
  • Cannot hear environmental sounds such as game calls, crickets, birds chirping, sirens and car horns
  • Strained personal relationships, denial
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fatigue and stress

NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to an intense sound such as a gun shot, firecracker or an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over an extended period of time such as woodworking or riding a motorcycle.

Sound is measured in units called decibels.  On the decibel scale an increase of 10 means that a sound is 10 times more powerful.  For example, a sound that measures 80 decibels is 10 times more intense that on that measures 70 decibels.   A refrigerator humming usually measures around 30-40 decibels.  Normal conversation is approximately 60 decibels.  Traffic noise can measure 85 decibels or more.     Long or repeated exposure to noises from 120 – 150 decibels can cause hearing loss.  The louder the sound, the shorter the time period you can be around it before hearing loss occurs.  A good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are “too loud” and “too close” or that last “too long”.  If you cannot avoid them use hearing protection!

NIHL is 100% preventable.  All individuals should understand the hazards of noise and how to practice good hearing health in everyday life.  To protect your hearing:

  • Know which noises can cause damage (those greater than 85 decibels).
  • Wear hearing protection when involved in a loud activity. (There are many types available at hardware and sporting good stores).
  • Be alert to hazardous noise in the environment.
  • Protect the ears of children that are too young to protect their own.
  • Make family and friends aware of the hazards of noise.
  • If you suspect hearing loss, have an exam by an otolaryngologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the ear, nose and throat) and a hearing test by an audiologist.

You can get more information at www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov.  If you do a Google search you can try key words such as hard-of-hearing and noise-induce hearing loss.

Being aware of noise exposure at work and at home will help everyone control the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.  Take care of your hearing!  Try to imagine a world where you don’t hearing the crickets on a summer night or the birds chirping on a sunny day.  Imagine not be able to hear the fire engine barreling down on you or getting a ticket for evading the police.  I bet they are not sympathetic to “I didn’t hear you”!

Lou Ann Enis, Registered Nurse and Occupational Health Supervisor

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