It’s popular to think of hearing loss as an unavoidable problem associated with aging, or, more recently, as a consequence of the younger generation’s regular use of iPods. But the numbers show that the bigger problem may be exposure to loud noise at work.

In the United States, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially unsafe noise, and an approximated 242 million dollars is expended yearly on worker’s compensation claims for hearing loss, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

What’s more is that higher rates of hearing loss are found in progressively noisier professions, indicating that being exposed to sounds over a certain level progressively heightens your risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss later in your life.

How loud is too loud?

A study conducted by Audicus found that, of those who were not exposed to occupational noise levels above 90 decibels, only 9 percent struggled with noise-induced hearing loss at age 50. In comparison, construction workers, who are repeatedly exposed to sound levels as high as 120 decibels, experienced noise-induced hearing loss at the age of 50 at a rate of 60 percent!

It appears that 85-90 decibels is the limit for safe sound volumes, but that’s not the entire story: the decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. That means that as you increase the decibel level by 3 decibels, the sound level approximately doubles. So 160 decibels is not twice as loud as 80—it’s about 26 times louder!

Here’s how it breaks down: a decibel level of 0 is scarcely detectable, regular conversation is about 60 decibels, the threshold for safety is 85-90 decibels, and the death of hearing cells takes place at 180 decibels. It’s the area between 85 and 180 that leads to noise-induced hearing loss, and as would be predicted, the occupations with progressively louder decibel levels have progressively higher rates of hearing loss.

Hearing loss by occupation

As the following table indicates, as the decibel levels associated with each profession increase, hearing loss rates increase as well:

OccupationDecibel levelIncidence rates of hearing loss at age 50
No noise exposureLess than 90 decibels9%
Manufacturing105 decibels30%
Farming105 decibels36%
Construction120 decibels60%

Any occupation with decibel levels above 90 places its workforce at risk for hearing loss, and this includes rock musicians (110 dB), Formula One drivers (135 dB), airport ground staff (140 dB), nightclub staff (110 dB), and shooting range marshalls (140 dB). In each case, as the decibel level increases, the risk of noise-induced hearing loss rises with it.

Protecting your hearing

A recent US study on the prevalence of hearing loss in farming discovered that 92 percent of the US farmers surveyed were subjected to hazardous noise levels, but that only 44 percent claimed to use hearing protection devices on a routine basis. Factory workers, in comparison, tend to adhere to stricter hearing protection regulations, which may explain why the frequency of hearing loss is moderately lower in manufacturing than it is in farming, despite being exposed to similar decibel volumes.

All of the data point to one thing: the importance of protecting your hearing. If you work in a high-risk job, you need to take the right precautionary steps. If avoiding the noise is not an option, you need to find ways to mitigate the noise levels (best accomplished with custom earplugs), in addition to making sure that you take routine rest breaks for your ears. Controlling both the sound volume and exposure time will lower your chances of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss.

If you would like to consider a hearing protection plan for your unique circumstances or job, give us a call. As hearing specialists, we can provide custom-made solutions to best safeguard your hearing at work. We also offer custom earplugs that, in addition to protecting your hearing, are comfortable to wear and can preserve the natural quality of sound (as opposed to the muffled sound you hear with foam earplugs).