Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) Safety Talk
Our hearing is precious to us. Once we diminish or lose our hearing we can never fully recover it. Both on the job and at home there are many sources of noise that can damage our hearing. These sounds can damage sensitive structures in the inner ear and cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Approximately 26 million Americans have some type of noise-induced hearing loss.
According to the CDC, over 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work each year. Occupational hearing loss is one of the most common workplace injuries today in the United States.
How the Ear is Damaged from Noise
Hearing depends on a series of events that change sound waves in the air into electrical signals. Our auditory nerve then carries these signals to the brain through a complex series of steps. To break down the process simply- the sound waves travel through the ear and eventually move hair cells up and down in the ear that causes channels to open up. This allows chemicals to rush into a cell that creates an electrical signal that translates the sound into something we can understand.
Most noise-induced hearing loss is caused by the damage and eventual death of these hair cells. Unlike bird and amphibian hair cells, human hair cells don’t grow back. They are gone for good.
Signs and Symptoms of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Most damage due to noise is gradual and over time. Because of this, many people ignore or do not realize that their hearing is being damaged. It becomes noticeable to an individual when it is harder to understand someone talking or needing to turn the TV volume up.
Damage can also occur from a single loud impulse noise such as a gunshot or explosion. These types of noises can rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear. This kind of NIHL can be immediate and permanent. Loud noise exposure can also cause tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head. Tinnitus may subside over time, but can sometimes continue constantly or occasionally throughout a person’s life. Hearing loss and tinnitus can occur in one or both ears. Sometimes temporary hearing loss can subside however the event that caused it can still cause long-term damage to your hearing.
Hearing Damage Prevention
- The best way to protect yourself is to eliminate exposure to the noise. That can be achieved by removing yourself from the area the noise is in or eliminating the excessive noise altogether.
- Engineering controls are the second-best choice in protection from noise. Sound barriers, enclosures, and noise dampening systems are examples of engineering controls that will bring down the level of noise in an area.
- Administrative controls such as training on using hearing protection, job rotation, breaks, and routine maintenance programs are some ways that protect workers from being exposed to hazardous noise.
- PPE is the last line of defense. It is important to know the levels of noise that remain after applying the other techniques mentioned above. For noises between 85 decibels and 100 decibels on an 8 hour TWA, ear plugs will be enough to protect you if worn correctly. Over 100 decibels then double hearing protection is needed, an example is earplugs and earmuffs.
Once you damage your hearing, you cannot get it back. While hearing aids have advanced greatly, they still cannot replace your hearing to peak levels that it was at before the damage occurred. Understand the levels of noise you are exposed to and protect yourself from hearing loss.
-What are some noises here at work or at home we are exposed to that can cause damage to our hearing?
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