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Noise Damage and How to Prevent It

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) hearing protection standard (1910.95) requires the employer to evaluate noise exposure, reduce that exposure using engineering or administrative means if possible, and if not possible, implement a hearing conservation program.

One requirement of the standard is to explain the effects of noise on hearing to employees (1910.95.k.3).

So just how does the ear work, and how can you save your hearing? Are there other things that can affect your hearing? What does age have to do with hearing loss? Can your hobbies affect your hearing?

How the Ear Works

Sound is a change in air pressure that is funneled by your outer ear – the part that holds your I-pod earbuds – to your eardrum. 

The eardrum vibrates just like a drum head would. It sends these vibrations through three tiny bones in your ear to the very sensitive inner ear.

The inner ear looks like a nautilus sea shell. Inside the curved part of this inner ear are lots of hair-like sensors that vibrate. 

These vibrations are sent to your aural nerve. The aural nerve sends the vibration information to your brain, where it is recognized as sound.

These hair-like sensors are tuned to different frequencies. Imagine these sensors as hundreds of different radio stations, each with its own frequency.

If noise damages the sensors, it is as if that radio station is off the air forever. If you damage or remove any of the parts – eardrum, small bones, inner ear, or nerve – you have hearing loss.

Sources of Damage

What damages these parts? Loud sounds, infections or disease, some types of drugs, as well as other things can be the source.

Loud sounds can damage your hearing in two ways: A very loud single event, or a loud sound that continues over a long period of time. 

Impact noise, an extremely loud event like an explosion, can damage your hearing suddenly at one time. 

This does happen sometimes in industry, but more likely, hearing is damaged by a high level of sound over a long time.

That is why OSHA measures sound as a time-weighted average. Using dosimeters, sound is recorded over time, and the average amount of sound is presented as a number that represents decibel exposure over that period of time.

There are drugs, both prescription and over the counter (aspirin is one), that can damage your hearing. 

Infections also can damage the nerves in your ear thus damaging your hearing. There are diseases that can destroy the small bones that transmit sound and other causes of hearing loss.

Most of us will experience hearing loss as we age. Just as we find ourselves using reading glasses or experiencing aches from arthritic joints, our ears wear out, too. This is called presbycusis, the loss of hearing due to the natural aging process.

Steps You Can Take

To keep your hearing as long as possible, it is important to take care of your ears. Wearing your hearing protection (ear plugs or muffs) while working in loud areas or while enjoying life is important to keeping your hearing healthy and your life full of fun. 

So put those ear plugs in while on your Harley or hunting or setting off fireworks on holidays.

Of course, always wear your hearing protection at work.

Source: Lynn Larsen, president of Safety Solutions Inc;., a safety consulting firm in Knoxville, TN; 701-261-9587.


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Safety Tip of the Week is edited by Managing Editor Tucker Scharfenberg and published each Monday by Grain Journal, Decatur, IL

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