Workplace Noise: More than just “All Ears”Posted on by
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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) – which is 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 – which is 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.
Noise Can Hurt More Than Your Ears
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.
While it has been established that noise causes 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 can be reduced 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 have been shown to have 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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Visit the NIOSH Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance website for more information, including industry sector-specific statistics on hearing loss, tinnitus, and noise exposure.
Visit the NIOSH Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention website for guidelines and recommendations for employers and workers to help reduce noise exposure at the workplace.
Ellen Kerns, MPH, CPH, COHC, was an Epidemiological Fellow in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies and is now a Research Data Analyst at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Elizabeth Masterson, PhD, CPH, COHC, is an Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies