Prolonged and repeated exposure to loud noise can cause hearing damage that may be permanent and disabling.
Hearing loss can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
- diseases of the ear such as Ménière’s disease
- the ageing process
- hereditary and sensitivity factors
- exposure to loud noise.
It can be temporary or permanent, happen gradually or all of a sudden, and can affect all age groups.
Noise-induced hearing loss
You’re at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss if you:
- work in a noisy environment, such as an engineering workshop
- work with noisy equipment, such as pneumatic impact tools and drills
- listen regularly to loud music through headphones.
There are two main causes of damage to hearing by noise: long-term exposure to loud noise such as in a noisy manufacturing plant and exposure to an exceptionally loud noise, such as an explosion. The latter is known as acoustic trauma. Along with hearing loss, you may also develop tinnitus, a condition that involves the annoying sensation of hearing sound when no external sound is present. Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when the sensitive hair cells inside the ear (cochlea) are damaged. The hearing loss is likely to become permanent if your exposure to noise is prolonged or repeated on a regular basis.
A noisy workplace can also limit your ability to hear high-frequency sounds, interfere with communications and concentration and make sound warnings difficult to hear. This may make you feel stressed and anxious, increase your risk of having an accident and give you a range of other health problems such as high blood pressure.
Identifying early signs of hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. So it’s important that you take precautions against loud noise.
As hearing loss is a painless and gradual process that develops over a period of several years, you may not notice it. However, the sooner you can get help, the less impact it will have on you. It’s important to be alert to some of the early warning signs which could indicate that you’ve been exposed to hazardous noise:
- you hear ringing or buzzing sounds after you finish work
- you have difficulty understanding what is being said to you
- you find it hard to keep up with conversations when talking to a group of people
- you struggle to distinguish which direction noise is coming from
- you regularly feel tired or stressed, from having to concentrate while listening
- you answer or respond inappropriately in conversations with your colleagues and family members
- you find it difficult to distinguish between sounds like ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘s’
- you cannot hear soft and high-pitched sounds (difficult to hear the telephone or the doorbell).
If you suspect that you’re experiencing any of the signs above, inform your employer or consult a physician.
Remember currently there are no cures for most types of hearing loss. Hearing aids may be a great help to many people, but they cannot restore hearing that has been lost.
Protecting your hearing
You employer would have taken all the necessary steps to make sure that you’re not exposed to unnecessary high level of noise. You can also help to keep yourself and others safe, by following the workplace rules, using equipment as instructed and finding out more about the risks you might be facing and how to overcome them. In order to protect yourself from harm, you must:
- co-operate with your employer by following safety rules that are in place
- wear hearing protection if it is provided for you
- follow any instructions supplied with your hearing protection
- do not wear poorly-fitting, damaged or dirty hearing protection ask for a replacement
- wear your hearing protection at all times while working with or near noisy tools and machinery
- do not take your hearing protection off in a noisy environment
- do not tamper with your hearing protection
- report any problems with your hearing protection or noise control devices straight away
- store your hearing protection appropriately and in a designated place
- take your rest breaks in a quiet place, if possible
- attend and follow any training you may receive from your employer
- keep an eye on early signs of hearing loss and report symptoms immediately
- attend any hearing tests, if your employer has arranged them for you
- limit your exposure to noisy activities at home.
Leaflets and factsheets
- Inquiring ears want to know is a simple factsheet from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (USA)
- The American Industrial Hygiene Association provides guidance on how to protect yourself from noise-induced hearing loss
- Don’t lose your hearing! is an easy-to-understand guide published by the Health and Safety Executive (UK)
- Action on Hearing Loss (UK) provides advice on Tinnitus, its causes and therapies
- Protecting yourself from noise in construction is a useful pocket guide from the Occupational Safety and Health - Administration (USA)
- The Health and Safety Executive (UK) offers advice on steps you can take to help you return to work: off sick and worried about your job?