No one would disagree that a job site is a noisy place, so noisy that it can lead to hearing loss over time. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has named hearing loss one of 21 priority areas for research in the future. Hearing loss is 100 percent preventable.

The problem is even minor hearing loss cannot be restored. Using some simple precautions can keep hearing loss to a minimum. NIOSH states that 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work. NIOSH also states there is a good amount of misunderstanding about how hearing loss occurs and the importance of hearing protection on the job. The following is a series of frequently asked questions that will help to increase understanding about hearing loss and prevention.

Q: Don’t we lose hearing as we get older?

A: True, most people’s hearing gets worse as they get older, but for the average person, hearing is not impaired much before the age of 60. This is typical of someone not working in the construction industry and who is exposed to loud noises for many years. It is said that at age 25, a carpenter has “the ears of a 50-year-old.” This means that at the quarter-century mark, this carpenter has the hearing of someone twice his age who has worked in a quiet job.

Q: Why does loud noise harm hearing?

A: Loud noises can damage delicate cells in the ear responsible for hearing. This loss usually is gradual during long exposure to loud sounds. Loud sounds cause these cells to be overworked, which eventually leads to the death of the cell. When enough cells are damaged, a hearing loss will result.

Q: How loud is too loud?

A: Sound is measured in decibels. Normal conversation occurs at about 60 decibels. Running a hand drill measures at about 98 decibels, and a chainsaw ranks at about 110 decibels. NIOSH estimates that exposure to noise at chainsaw level can cause hearing loss in as little as a minute. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), prolonged exposure to noise levels above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.

Q: How can I tell if the noise level is dangerous?

A: There are two good rules of thumb. First, if you must raise your voice to be heard by someone that is an arm’s length away, the noise level probably is hazardous. Second, if after leaving the noisy place your ears ring or sounds seem dull or muffled, again the noise level probably was hazardous.

Q: Will you be able to hear backup beeps and other warning sounds while wearing hearing protectors?

A: In fact, fatal accidents do occur on job sites because people don’t hear the warning sounds. However, this usually happens when the background noise at the site was too high, not because the person was wearing hearing protection. Hearing protection brings all sound levels down equally. The warning beeps can still be heard, they just don’t sound as loud as without the protection.

Q: It sometimes is necessary to listen for sounds the machinery and equipment make. Won’t hearing protectors interfere with this?

A: Hearing protectors decrease the noise level, not eliminate it. However, some hearing protectors can make noises sound different, which may make listening to your machine more difficult. If listening to subtle differences in the sound of your tool or machine is important, there are hearing protectors that can provide flat attenuation.

Q: How long does it take to get used to wearing hearing protectors?

A: Getting used to hearing protectors is no different than getting used to a new pair of shoes. Sometimes it takes no time at all, and other times you have to break the shoes in. In order for hearing protectors to be comfortable, they must be the right size and not worn out. Workers also may need more than one type of protector at their job. If the hearing protector being used is not suitable for the work being done, they probably will not be comfortable.

Q: How often should my hearing be tested?

A: If you are regularly exposed to noises at hazardous levels, your hearing should be tested annually. Anyone who notices any change in their hearing should have their hearing tested at that time.

Q: Where can I get a hearing test?

A: At the following Web sites, you can find information on where to get a hearing test.

Your job shouldn’t cause hearing loss. Yet many people in our industry lose hearing every year because of exposure to hazardous noise levels. Many accidents and injuries on the job site are difficult to prevent, but hearing loss isn’t one of them. Simple prevention by using hearing protection can prevent any permanent hearing loss.    EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com. KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec.