How to protect your workers from Noise Induced Hearing Loss

It is widely believed that the UK has well over 10 million individuals who are thought to present the tell tale signs of hearing loss. Of the various causes that are linked with hearing loss, age-related is most often discussed in detail while other causes such as noise related hearing loss seem to get less attention. The reason for this disparity is likely to be the number of people affected by the different causes; the vast majority of hearing loss is age-related rather than noise induced. In this article we will look at noise induced hearing loss in more detail.

How Does Age Related Hearing Loss Differ From Noise Induced Hearing Loss?

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is our ability to control and even reduce the likelihood of one over the other. Age related hearing loss happens as a result of ageing and most individuals will experience its effects to a varied degree of severity as they grow older. Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), on the other hand, is completely the result of lifestyle choices that individuals make during their lifetime. Education and enforcement can significantly reduce NIHL particularly when it is caused as a result of poor working practices and noisy processes.

How Does Hearing Loss Happen?

Our hearing system is a complex structure in which various organs, nerves and the brain have to work as one. Any break in the chain can lead to a reduced ability to hear certain frequencies or even complete deafness. The first part in the chain involves capturing sounds, which are in fact vibrations and waves in the air. The sound is captured by means of tiny hair cells within the inner ear. Sounds and vibrations are than passed by the hearing nerve to the brain.

The hair cells can become damaged and therefore diminished in quality as a result of ageing (age related hearing loss) and as a result of sound trauma (noise induced hearing loss). To date, modern medicine is unable to regrow the hair cells, consequently this type of hearing loss is permanent. There are many things that can be done to reduce the on-set of this type of hearing loss in terms of education and risk management and even if hearing loss does take effect, there are means to manage the condition but never to ‘cure it’ entirely.

How To Reduce Noise Induced Hearing Loss?

Efforts to reduce hearing loss as a result of noise, tackle the working environment as private individuals are thought to have more control over their actions, while employees are often the subject of an inherent working environment.  The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (Noise Regulations 2005) require UK employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety including exposure to noise in the workplace.

There are a number of steps that employers must take. Traditionally the process will be managed and led by a health and safety professional and will include a combination of steps rather than one step. Some of the steps are listed below:

Finding the noise pollution source – Hearing loss as a result of harmful sound depends on the volume of the noise measured in dB and the duration of exposure. Therefore areas in which sound is measured in excess of 85dB are the subjects of noise reduction enforcement.

Reducing noise pollution – Measures to reduce noise often feature a number of methods starting with finding and treating the source of the noise. Often this involves improving the working environment, switching to quieter processes and updating mechanical machinery. Hearing protection aids can be used, however these carry an upper limit in terms of effective dB reduction and are by no means a solution to all noises. Quality earplugs can reduce noise pollution by 20dB, while earmuffs are slightly more effective. The two can be used in conjunction, provided that the employee isn’t completely isolated from sound and therefore from his or her working environment.

Support and Training – Instructions on how to use hearing protection and correct care should be given to employees. Furthermore, employees should be given access to hearing tests when require as well as a channel in which their concerns could be heard.

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Post written by Melanie Lewis, a trained hearing aid audiologist. She works for the UK’s biggest supplier of amplified deaf and hard of hearing telephones and actively writes for the hearing direct blog.