The loss of hearing is a serious issue that can affect an employee at work and at home. Untreated hearing loss can affect a person’s ability to understand speech and can negatively impact his or her social and emotional well being. Fortunately, there are simple steps that can be taken to protect hearing and help prevent hearing loss.

Will Flower

Approximately 40 to 50 million people in the U.S. have some type of hearing loss making it one of the most common health problems in America. When your hearing is working normally, information is being passed through the various parts of the ear to the brain. Noise-induced hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the hair cells found in the inner ear. These hair cells are small sensory cells that convert the sounds we hear into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, hair cells do not grow back, which can result in permanent hearing loss.

While age and family history can influence hearing loss, there are many other factors including:

  • Ear infections, trauma or disease.
  • Exposure to excessively loud noise.
  • Damage to the outer, middle ear or eardrum from contact with a foreign object such as cotton swabs.
  • Certain medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, which can sometimes contribute to hearing loss. Discuss medications and potential side effects with your doctor.

Some of the signs that a person is suffering from hearing loss include:

  • Difficulty hearing people in noisy environments such as restaurants or crowed rooms.
  • Having trouble following conversations.
  • Fellow employees, family and friends often need to repeat themselves when speaking with you.
  • A ringing, buzzing or hissing sounds in your ears.

If you have any of these symptoms, ask your doctor about hearing loss and schedule an appointment with a hearing specialist.

Guard Against Hearing Loss

People should guard themselves at all times against harmful sounds including while at home and during recreational activities. Turning down the volume when listening to the radio, TV or anything through ear buds and headphones is one way to conserve hearing. Wearing hearing protection while running a lawnmower, chainsaw, leaf blower or other loud tools is another good safety practice that can help protect your hearing. Additionally, wearing earplugs at loud concerts is a good practice.

Employees also need to protect their hearing at work.  Managers and supervisors should evaluate the workplace for loud noises to determine if there is a need for an employee hearing protection program. A basic hearing protection program should include:

  • An evaluation of the work environment to identify areas with potentially hazardous noise levels.
  • Action plans to control loud noise.
  • The use of earplugs, earmuffs or similar ear-protection devices when necessary.
  • Education of workers regarding the dangers of loud noise and the use of ear protection.

Protection can be fairly easy and may include wearing hearing protection when working around loud sounds. There are different types of hearing protection such as foam earplugs, earmuffs and custom hearing protection devices. Earplugs work better against low-frequency noises, while earmuffs offer more protection against high-frequency noises. When you know you will be exposed to loud noise for an extended period, earplugs and earmuffs can be worn together for the best protection. Employees should be trained on the limitations of hearing protection including the ability to hear warning alarms and conversations that may be important to one’s safety.

When is Loud Too Loud?

Sound loudness is measured in units called decibels (dB). Normal conversations and office noises are around 60 dB. A running lawn mower or chain saw is about 90 dB while the blast from a shotgun is about 140 dB. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by sudden or prolonged exposure to any sound over 90 dB. OSHA states that workers should not be exposed to constant noise above 90 dB for longer than eight hours without proper protection.

As a general rule, you could be in dangerous situation if:

  • You have to shout over background noise so the person next to you can hear your voice.
  • The noise is painful to your ears.
  • The noise makes your ears ring.
  • You have decreased or “muffled” hearing for several hours after exposure.

Hearing is the primary way that people use to communication and connect with other people. Therefore, everyone should incorporate hearing screenings into their regular health checkups and take steps to protect and preserve their hearing.

Next month’s Safety Brief will focus on traffic flow at solid waste facilities.

Will Flower is the Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems. Will has 35 years of experience in the area of solid waste management and environmental protection. He has held operational and executive leadership positions at the Director’s Office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Waste Management, Inc., Republic Services. Inc. and Green Stream Recycling.