Noise-induced hearing loss is not limited to construction or factory workers as some might presume, just ask a waiter or a retail employee. Workers in many New York City restaurants and clothing stores are often exposed to loud music, sometimes averaging nearly 100 dBA, according to a New York Times article.
“The risk to hearing from hazardous noise exposure is a product of sound level (decibel) and time (duration),” said Deanna Meinke, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado’s Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences department in Greeley. Dr. Meinke was responding on behalf of Dangerous Decibels, a public health campaign designed to reduce the incidence and prevalence of NIHL and tinnitus.
“A particular dBA level can be safe or dangerous depending on how much time is spent in the exposure. Permissible exposure levels are mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for service personnel such as waiters,” said Dr. Meinke.
OSHA’s exposure regulation permits 90 dBA for eight hours.This metric has been debated, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has proposed changing the maximum eight-hour exposure to 85 dBA. “A lot of people in the hearing conservation business have adopted the 85-decibel standard, and the reason for that is we know when you get above 85 dBA it’s dangerous,” said Bruce Kirchner, MD, an associate medical director at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati who responded on behalf of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Dr. Kirchner helped develop the ACOEM guidance on noise-induced hearing loss.
The amount of permissible exposure time decreases as the noise levels increase, and when noise levels reported in New York City restaurants and stores are reached, employees might be in trouble. Would a waiter who worked eight hours at 96 dBA be at risk of hearing loss? “Yes, if the exposure was on a daily basis for extended periods of time,” Dr. Meinke said. “This waiter received 230 percent of his OSHA daily dose if he worked eight hours. According to NIOSH, the waiter received 1,236 percent. This also would mean that the waiter should not have any additional exposure that day, so if he rode a motorcycle or [the] subway to work, played in a band that day, or mowed the lawn, then he would be at greater risk. Each of these separate activities adds up to a greater cumulative exposure, and puts hearing at greater risk if hearing protection is not used.”
The guideline assumes a person is exposed to the noise level eight hours a day, five days a week, for 40 years, which is a typical career span. Waiters and retail employees may not work eight-hour shifts every day and the noise level may not remain at more than 85 dBA during their shifts. Regardless, “noise exposure is cumulative throughout each day and throughout our lifetimes,” Dr. Meinke said.
Consistent exposure to these high levels of noise is dangerous. “It is time to begin educating the public that any sound above 85 dBA is potentially hazardous over extended periods of time, and hearing protective strategies should be implemented to reduce the exposure,” Dr. Meinke said.
OSHA requires employers to provide a hearing conservation program when workers are overexposed to excessive noise, but some who work in this harsh hearing climate take a nonchalant attitude when it comes to potential hearing loss. One person interviewed by the New York Times said he hoped for better technology to restore his hearing when he loses it in the future. “These are risk-averse people,” Dr. Kirchner said. “What can you tell a kid about risk? They don’t perceive that it’s going to be a problem for them.”
Drs. Meinke and Kirchner try different techniques with people at risk for hearing loss to help them understand how irreversible and devastating it is. “I respond with ‘what’s your favorite sound,’ and follow up with ‘what if you never hear that sound again, and it was replaced with a never-ending annoying sound (tinnitus),’” Dr. Meinke said. “There are no guarantees that science will be successful in anyone’s lifetime, and even if advancements are made, it is doubtful they will provide the pristine sounds that healthy ears provide now.
“You have to engage people on an individual and personal level. We take our hearing for granted, and only when we stop and think about the sounds that are treasured by us can we begin to be motivated to protect our hearing,” said Dr. Meinke.
From The Hearing Journal