Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: Are You at Risk?

“Say what?” “Excuse me?” “Sorry, I didn’t get that.” “Hey, don’t mumble!”

If you can’t understand what your coworkers are saying even when they’re close to you, noise levels in your workplace may be threatening your hearing.

According to Health Canada’s page “Noise-Induced Hearing Loss,” just 5 minutes a day of noise that requires someone to shout directly into your ear to be understood can put you at risk of permanent hearing loss. If the noise level is such that people have to shout when they’re only 30 cm (12 inches) away from you, 45 minutes’ daily exposure can have the same effect.

If, after a loud noise stops, you notice a temporary hearing loss, causing sounds to be muffled or quieter, or if you experience tinnitus, a ringing, buzzing, or rushing sound in your ear, that loud noise—if repeated too often—may also lead to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

NIHL is sneaky. Permanent damage is based not just on how loud the noise and the length of time you hear it, but also on how often it occurs and whether your ears have a chance to recover between onslaughts.

“Exposure to noise adds up,” the Health Canada site explains. “So to get a sense of the risk, you have to consider all of the noise you are exposed to on a given day.”

For example, you might listen to music through earbuds for an hour while you ride the bus to work. The bus is bustling, so you crank up the volume to maximum. At work, you spend 10 minutes without hearing protection while waiting for your load as heavy machinery roars nearby. It’s just 10 minutes, right? Think again.

“Each activity on its own is not quite enough to cause a significant risk of…hearing loss, but…your total exposure crosses that threshold.”

Everyone needs to take NIHL seriously, because hearing damage cannot be reversed. You must take steps to protect your hearing before the loss is permanent.

You can start by checking out a series of new videos from WorkSafeBC that focus on NIHL. These include:

  •  “Protect Your Hearing: What Noise Does to Your Ears”
  • “Protect Your Hearing: Intensity and Duration of Noise”
  • “Protect Your Hearing: How to Use Earplugs”

The good news for professional drivers is that their risk of NIHL has gone down with improvements in truck design.

“Many professional drivers…are not hazardously exposed to noise, including school bus drivers, transit bus drivers, taxi drivers, charter bus drivers, courier drivers, tow truck drivers, light delivery drivers (<5 ton trucks),” says Trina Pollard of WorkSafeBC’s Industry and Labour Services – Transportation and Occupational Road Safety. “Long-haul truck drivers were historically exposed to hazardous levels of noise. However, in recent decades, trucks have been manufactured with insulated cabs that significantly decrease noise exposure.”

Still, that does not mean there is no danger of NIHL.

“Drivers can expose themselves to noise risk when they use headphones or from listening to the stereo at excessive volume,” Pollard cautions. “Drivers often use hands-free devices (headsets/ear buds) to speak on the phone. Because they are competing with environmental noise, they turn up the volume to the maximum level. This exposure is directly into the ear canal and for prolonged periods.”

In addition, there are external sources of noise to be considered.

“Noise exposure can arise from the work environment outside of the vehicle (e.g., noise at warehouses, sites, and yards from loading/unloading activities, mobile equipment, etc).”

Pollard recommends that drivers take these steps to help avoid NIHL:

  • Identify the noise hazards in your workplace and have the various sites measured for noise to help assess the risk of NIHL.
  • • Keep truck windows closed, particularly in insulated cabs, and reduce the duration of exposure.
  • When at a worksite, wear hearing protection. Assume the noise level is in excess and act accordingly. Even if there for a short time, take the time to correctly insert ear plugs or put on ear muffs BEFORE you leave the vehicle and do not remove until you are back in your cab.
  • Control noise levels within your vehicle and turn down the volume of devices. Volume should never be at maximum level.
  • Give your ears a break. Throughout the day, have “quiet periods.” Turn off all noise.

Both WorkSafeBC and SafetyDriven – Trucking Safety Council of BC provide many resources related to NIHL and hearing loss prevention, including the following:

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