When you were small and didn’t want to hear something, you covered your ears with your hands. As you grew older and experienced noise that hurt your ears, you most likely removed yourself from the situation. But what happens if your workplace is noisy?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says employers must offer hearing protection to any employee exposed to noise levels exceeding 85 decibels during the course of an eight hour day. But organizations such as the American Tinnitus Association are asking employers to do more than the minimum required.
“Workplace noise exposure is a growing national health issue that seriously jeopardizes the long-term well-being of workers and the overall productivity of businesses” said Cara James, executive director of the American Tinnitus Association. “Fortunately, this is a crisis that can be averted through simple preventive measures. ATA encourages both employers and employees to take active steps to protect their hearing and minimize the long-term risks of noise exposure.”
What is tinnitus?
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), as many as 30,000 Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels at work. More than 26 million Americans experience hearing loss as a result of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). In addition to permanent hearing damage, NIHL can also cause tinnitus, a condition in which individuals constantly hear noises which do not exist. These phantom noises are often described as ringing, buzzing or hissing.
What causes it?
Noise is the leading cause of tinnitus; however, it can also be caused by head and neck trauma, certain types of diseases, cardiovascular disease, jaw misalignment, tumors, wax buildup, and medications detrimental to hearing health.
The ATA estimates more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus. Of these, 16 million seek treatment for it every year and 2 million are so debilitated by the disorder they cannot function on a daily level. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, tinnitus was the number one service disability for our armed service personnel in 2012. Musicians, construction workers and others exposed to constant loud noise are other populations reporting large instances of this disorder.
How can you minimize noise at work?
If you suspect your workplace exceeds noise levels for healthy hearing, talk to your employer. The ATA urges employers to develop engineering controls that will reduce overall noise input and implement administrative procedures to minimize the amount of exposure employees have to loud noise.
Try reducing workplace noise levels by:
- Putting a rug, canvas print, drapery or professional baffles in your office to help deaden the noise;
- Counteract the noise with a fan or sound machine;
- Put a physical barrier between you and the noise, such as a box with sound deadening materials, screens or false walls.
- If you can’t deaden the noise in your workspace, wear one of these types of hearing protection:
- Earmuffs: A good pair of ear muffs can reduce the noise level in your environment by as much as 30 dB. Costs range from $20 to $145, depending on the manufacturer. Look for them in sporting goods stores or online.
- Ear plugs: You can purchase a case of disposable foam ear plugs in your local department store or ask your hearing health professional to make you a custom set of ear plugs. It all depends upon the amount of protection you need and the money you’re willing to spend. Foam ear plugs from the department store can cost less than $5.00 and provide a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 33 dB. You can purchase DIY custom ear plug kits online for as little as $150 or work with a local hearing center for professional care.
- Canal caps: These devices look a lot like ear plugs but are connected by a plastic or metal band. They get their name because they “cap off” the ear canal opening. While they are convenient and can be removed quickly when there is no noise, they are not recommended gear for dangerously noisy environments. NRR 22
- Noise cancellation technology: These devices, typically headphones, use technology to “cancel” unwanted sounds. Prices vary from less than $20 to as much as $700, depending upon the manufacturer and features you desire. Look for this type of hearing protection at sporting goods stores or online.