A type of sensorineural hearing loss that occurs from prolonged exposure to loud noises or ototoxic chemicals at work, occupational hearing loss happens when the auditory cells of the inner ear become damaged from vibrations or noise in the work setting.

As noise passes through the outer ear into the middle and inner ear, auditory nerve cells are destroyed. The nerves die gradually, so you may not notice the symptoms until you can’t hear the doorbell or tv anymore.

Often, people that work in noisy settings have hearing loss that directly relates to the intensity and duration of exposure. 

Working in the United States

Sadly, occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the states today, affecting over 30-50 million American workers each day.

In our culture, including our working culture, loud noises are incredibly widespread. Various work environments worldwide have workers who have noise-induced hearing loss as a result of the noise level their jobs entail. Some of these jobs include:

  • Construction or jobs that include loud machinery
  • Airline ground maintenance
  • Farming
  • Musicians and jobs involving loud music
  • Military jobs involving aircraft noise or combat

Workers in the United States have laws to protect them by regulating the maximum amount of noise exposure allowed for a healthy work environment, which is determined by the amount of time you’re exposed to noise and the noise level in terms of decibels.

Causes

From prolonged exposure to noise over a specific decibel level to exposure to certain chemicals, occupational hearing loss is always caused by unsafe work.

Noise Exposure

Each day people of all ages experience noises in our environments, most of which don’t damage hearing. However, sounds can become harmful when they’re too loud, even if only for a second like a loud burst.

Over time, exposure to loud noises and music can cause irreversible hearing loss. Any sound over 80 decibels is considered loud enough to cause permanent damage to the inner ear, and the likelihood only increases with frequency.

According to the decibel chart, rock concerts, jackhammers, jet engines, and even motorcycles are loud enough to fit into this category. You can impair your hearing from hunting, playing in a band, riding snowmobiles, and so much more. Sometimes the exposure can be an intense shorter sound, like an explosion. Sometimes hearing loss results from extended noise, like working in a woodshop.

Ototoxic Chemical Exposure

Chemicals called ototoxicants can cause hearing or balance problems regardless of the level of noise you’ve been exposed to in your life. These chemicals can negatively change how the ear functions and the risk of hearing loss are especially high if you work with these chemicals in a loud setting.

The chemicals that are considered ototoxic include the following:

  • Solvents
  • Pesticides
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Asphyxiants, such as carbon monoxide or tobacco smoke
  • Metals and compounds like lead or mercury

Hearing loss of this sort can be temporary or permanent as well, depending on how much of the chemical you were exposed to, the level of noise, and the amount of time you were exposed. Often, this type of hearing loss affects occupations such as firefighters and machinists, among others industries including industries involving:

  • Leather
  • Metal
  • Machinery
  • Textiles and apparel
  • Paper
  • Paint
  • Plastics
  • Petroleum
  • Construction
  • Transportation and electrical equipment

You can become exposed from inhaling or ingesting the chemical or simply absorbing it through your skin and the effects cause vary based on the type of hazard, intensity, and workplace type as well as other factors.

The best way to tell if you have this hearing loss is in your ability to hear voice separately from background noise, as sounds may become distorted and you could begin to lose your ability to differentiate between two sounds or locate where a noise is coming from.

Treatment

Noise-induced hearing loss limits your communication skills because you may have a harder time understand speech. Hearing aids help most people with hearing loss, but they can’t and won’t restore your hearing. The loss is usually permanent because the nerves have died, but it is preventable and sometimes aided by medicine or surgery.

Prevention

If you hear a ringing sound after exposure to loud noise, you probably have hearing loss that will only get worse over time. Your doctor may perform audiology tests or scans of the brain and head to rule out a serious condition and determine a plan for future care.

People with hearing loss are often expected to make certain lifestyle changes to prevent further hearing loss outside of their profession. Or, you may need to develop coping skills like lip reading to communicate better. 

Hearing aids or other devices may also help you understand, but you should still take measures to protect the hearing you have by preventing future damage. Protective earplugs or earmuffs can and should also be worn around all loud equipment.

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