This article was written for Risk and Safety Plus by Joan McKechnie BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hearing Direct, which offers a range of hearing equipment for the deaf and hard of hearing.
In the Western world, the two most common types of hearing loss are age-related and noise induced. Age-related hearing loss is a gradual deterioration in hearing ability and there’s nothing that you can do to prevent it happening as you get older. However, noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the result of damage – which the ear can be protected against.
When does NIHL occur?
If you are in a noisy environment for a prolonged period of time tiny hair cells in your ear are damaged – and the outcome is a reduction in your ability to hear clearly.
Damage to your hearing is irreversible which means that any ‘cure’ is merely a way to manage the condition.
The degree of hearing loss caused by noise will depend on factors such as:
- How long the exposure continues
- How loud the noise is
Everyone is different and the level of hearing loss will vary from one person to the next.
How to reduce NIHL
You don’t want to damage your hearing (or that of the people who work in your organisation) so it’s wise to take steps to reduce the risks of hearing loss from exposure to loud noise throughout the workplace.
These steps should include:
Identifying the problematic areas – ensure someone is tasked with the responsibility of identifying areas that exceed the permitted level of noise. This needs to be checked regularly.
Changing to quieter processes – the best means to avoid the possibility of hearing loss in the workplace is to try to deal with the source of the noise. Installing quieter machinery should be investigated. The cost of doing this may appear high – however, claims against the organisation for workplace injury could end up costing much more.
Using hearing protection – noise reduction can be achieved with ear defenders and earplugs, but bear in mind that even the best carry an upper limit in decibel reduction. For example, a good quality earplug that fits the wearer well may carry a noise reduction of up to 20dB. If a noise assessment measured 110dB in the area and guidelines do not permit noise levels to exceed 80dB this solution alone would be ineffective.
While it is possible to combine two types of hearing protection (e.g. plugs and ear muffs) to increase their dB reduction, employees should never be completely isolated from sound or they can be at risk of not hearing warnings.
Set procedures – policies should outline how the organisation addresses noise reduction and hearing loss. Clear guidelines should be included regarding when and how hearing protection should be used. Employees should also be given access to regular hearing tests.
With policies and procedures in place to manage the noise levels in all areas of the workplace, the people who work there will be protected against unnecessary loss of hearing.