Occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 22 million workers are subjected to damaging sound levels every year. Exposures related to one’s occupation can cause damage to one or both ears at the inner ear or auditory nerve. Protecting oneself on the job is key to preventing the irreversible damages of hearing loss.
Causes of Occupational Hearing Loss
Workplace hearing loss can be caused by one-time or repeated exposure to industrial noise. The sound vibrations, or high decibel (dB) levels, can damage the microscopic hair cells found inside the cochlea. Most often, this damage is attributed to loud sounds 85dB or stronger that can break the hair cell’s stereocilia. Also, a lesser-known cause of hearing loss on the job can be caused by exposure to ototoxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals are not tested and it is believed that the cochlear hair cells are a target tissue for these solvents.
Many occupations subject employees to high decibel levels, but some are more likely than others. According to 2016 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the mining industry is the most dangerous cause of noise-induced hearing loss to workers. Miners have been found to have the highest prevalence of impairment at 17 percent of all causes of on-the-job hearing loss. A jackhammer at a construction site can reach 120dB and those working in the industry account for 16 percent occupational hearing loss. Rock concerts, gun muzzle blasts, and lawnmowers also reach very high decibel levels and puts the employees of several more industries in danger.
Hearing loss can be prevented by avoiding or protecting oneself from sound levels higher than 80dB and known ototoxic chemicals. Unfortunately, hearing loss is most often permanent and treatment is therefore limited. Hearing aids and other devices are available to help patients successfully communicate with those around them. Sufferers must simply try to prevent further hearing loss, improve communication with remaining hearing, and develop coping skills.