hearing loss protection at work

Employment-related hearing loss is one of the most common hazards for American workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year 22 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work while more than 30 million workers are exposed to chemicals that can be harmful to their ears.

“Hearing loss is common,” says Steven Jones, MD, an otolaryngologist with UPMC Metro ENT Associates. “About 50 million Americans have clinically significant hearing loss, and by that I mean the type of hearing loss that can affect them in their day-to-day lives. 

Protecting your hearing at work is very important because these types of hearing loss are permanent and can only be improved with hearing aids.

If your workplace has a noise level of 85 decibels or more and you’re exposed to that noise for more than eight hours at a time, the CDC says you may be at risk for developing hearing problems. The louder the sound, the higher the decibel count. And the higher the decibel level, the less time it takes for hearing to be damaged.

If you think you are at risk of hearing loss from work, consider contacting a medical professional at the Hearing and Balance Center at UPMC at 412-647-HEAR (4327).

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Risk Factors for Hearing Loss from Work

Individuals who are more susceptible to occupational hearing loss include musicians, recording engineers, sound crews, construction workers, aircraft personnel, emergency vehicle operators, industrial workers, and medical-dental workers. People who frequently attend noisy sporting events or concerts also risk damaging their hearing. If your profession or lifestyle exposes you to very loud noises, take steps to protect your hearing.

Signs and Symptoms of Hearing Problems

Exposure to loud noises can damage the delicate hair cells of the inner ear, causing temporary hearing loss. For example, after a concert you may experience a ringing or buzzing sensation that disappears after a few hours. Repeated exposure to loud noises can cause more permanent damage.

At the UPMC Musicians’ Hearing Center, comprehensive audiologic evaluations are conducted to look for the early signs and symptoms of permanent hearing damage, including:

  • Hearing loss
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • Sensation of fullness in the ears

An audiologist can advise you on your hearing status, provide appropriate hearing protection, and recommend a medical evaluation, if needed.

Protecting Your Hearing at Work

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers these recommendations for employers and employees to reduce the risk of hearing loss at work:

  • If possible, eliminate loud noises by removing the source (such as removing loud machinery).
  • If you can’t remove the source altogether, NIOSH recommends substituting quieter equipment. Next, consider isolating people from the noise hazard by moving them away from loud noises or putting all loud equipment in one room. Consider setting time limits to reduce exposure to loud equipment.
  • If exposure to dangerous noise levels cannot be avoided, NIOSH recommends using personal protective equipment like earplugs or earmuffs to keep noise exposure below 85 decibels for periods longer than eight hours.
  • The UPMC Musicians’ Hearing Center can design custom earplugs to dampen sound evenly across all pitches so workers can still hear for safety and communication while protecting their hearing. It’s even possible to use interchangeable filters, which provide ear protection for a variety of situations.

If you think you are at risk of hearing loss from work, consider contacting a medical professional at the Hearing and Balance Center at UPMC at 412-647-HEAR (4327).

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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The experts in the UPMC Department of Otolaryngology treat a variety of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) conditions in both children and adults. Our team includes board-certified physicians and highly skilled speech-language pathologists and audiologists. We provide both surgical and nonsurgical treatment options. Our research and clinical trials help to advance care for our patients. Find an ENT expert near you.