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Noise-induced hearing loss: are you at risk?

Contributed by | Thursday, March 26th, 2015

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Tractors. Pneumatic percussion drills. Jackhammers. Loud music. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC,) every day up to 4 million people are subjected to damaging noise as a routine part of their jobs. Unfortunately that translates to a lot of people at a high risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). New research, however, is shedding light on exactly what physiological changes occur during NIHL, specifically to the hearing parts of the brain, in an effort to create new prevention and treatment options. Add in new marketing campaigns on hearing conservation geared toward specific occupations and things are looking up for NIHL prevention.    

Listening to music at decibels 
greater than 85 can cause
permanent hearing loss. Limit your
exposure to loud noises and protect
yourself at your job if you work in a
loud environment.

According to the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), certain occupations come with a higher risk of noise induced hearing loss than others. Among these occupations are:

  • Farmers
  • Miners
  • Construction workers
  • Factory workers
  • Transportation workers (i.e. aircraft marshals)
  • Military personnel
  • Musicians
  • Night club workers/bartenders
  • Firemen/police officers

Neuroscientists at The University of Texas at Dallas recently found that prolonged exposure to loud noise alters how the brain processes speech, potentially increasing the difficulty in distinguishing speech sounds. After exposure to loud noise, the neurons in the auditory cortex slowed down, effectively becoming more sluggish and less sensitive and responded to a much narrower frequency range than neurons that had not been exposed to loud noise. Distinguishing speech sounds necessary to complete a behavioral task then became impossible. "Although the ear is critical to hearing, it is just the first step of many processing stages needed to hold a conversation," said Dr. Michael Kilgard, professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. "We are beginning to understand how hearing damage alters the brain and makes it hard to process speech, especially in noisy environments."

The implications are far-reaching. When the brain has trouble processing speech, NIHL becomes more than just a physical problem. It has a negative effect on the quality of life, often creating social isolation. Depression is common among those who experience NIHL and relationships with loved ones can suffer due to communication problems.    

There is hope in possible new prevention options for NIHL, though. Research into certain amino acids such as d-methionine and in vitamin supplements such as nicotinamide riboside shows that in the future, it might be possible to prevent noise induced hearing loss by offering protection to the microscopic hair cells that transmit sound waves to the brain.

Although these prevention options could be years away, fortunately other steps are being taken in the meantime to lower the risk of NIHL. NIOSH, for example, has been a frontrunner in creative approaches to help reduce the risk of NIHL. They instituted the “Buy Quiet” prevention initiative, which encourages businesses to buy quieter equipment or machinery when it is time to replace old equipment. This, in turn, encourages the manufacturers to focus on making quieter equipment due to increasing demand. The “Buy Quiet” initiative also provides helpful information to companies regarding noise levels, so they can make informed decisions regarding their purchases.

What else can be done? Workplaces that present a high risk of NIHL need to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines when it comes to noise levels, and to have controls in place. These controls include eliminating the noise or reducing the noise level when possible and providing proper hearing protection equipment such as earplugs or earmuffs. All workers should be informed and knowledgeable about the risks of NIHL and should be cognizant of their exposure times. They should get hearing checked on a regular basis, or if they have experienced ringing in their ears for over 24 hours.  

But what about participants in occupations that are without OSHA oversight and therefore harder to reach? Musicians, for example, are four times more likely to suffer NIHL than any other profession, but are far more unlikely to be concerned about hearing loss and to take proper precautions. Aware that artistic people needed a more creative, unconventional approach, NIOSH decided take a different tack. They decided to use targeted marketing campaigns that highlight the value of hearing, and to place the emphasis on products and companies that are helping musicians improve sound quality (important to musicians) while also reducing noise. In partnership with the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA), they also created the Safe-in-Sound Excellence in Hearing Loss Prevention Award.

Farmers are another group at an increased risk of NIHL due to prolonged exposure to high decibel equipment. It is estimated that up to 78 percent of farmers suffer from some level of hearing loss. The good news is that NIOSH has made an effort to create partnerships with organizations that farmers trust and those that have connections to farming communities. Partnerships with organizations like the National Association of Agricultural Educators and Farm Safety 4 Just Kids, who are trusted sources of information in farming communities, help to disseminate information and promote healthy hearing among farmers and agricultural workers.   

Noisy occupations are always going to exist; but the good news is that from medicine to science to marketing, experts are working to make noise-induced hearing loss a thing of the past.  

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