By Dr Theresa Schulz
For most of us, our sense of hearing defines our relationships and shapes our personalities. It keeps us connected to the people and the environment around us, alerts us to danger, and adds to our sense of social enjoyment.
Hearing never sleeps — it keeps us aware every second of every day.
Without healthy hearing, we face several permanent consequences, none more tragic than diminishing our ability to connect with others in a meaningful way. Quoting Helen Keller, "Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people."
Consider for a moment the personal reasons you have to keep our hearing safe.
Ask yourself some key questions: What if you couldn’t hear? What would you miss? What is your favorite sound? Does your hearing keep you safe — at work, at home, in the bush, on the road? How would your job be affected if you couldn’t hear? Any one of these reasons alone would be worth any minor inconvenience of using earplugs or earmuffs to prevent hearing loss.
Unlike other injuries or diseases, there is no visible evidence of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL.) It is usually not traumatic and often goes unnoticed in its early stages. NIHL accumulates over time with every unprotected exposure to hazardous noise levels. Its effects are realized long after the damage has been done. NIHL is permanent and irreversible. But the good news is that NIHL is also 100% preventable.
With NIHL, ringing in the ears called tinnitus is sometimes the first indication that damage has occurred. Then high frequency signals (such as crickets chirping and wristwatch alarms, and speech sounds like “SH,” “S,” “TH” and “F”) are the sounds that are first affected. They will be muffled, compared to other sounds of speech. With normal hearing, conversations are understandable if they are loud enough. With NIHL, the clarity of speech is affected, and simply turning up the volume does not solve the problem.
To keep your hearing safe, it helps to know when your hearing is in danger. Noise is generally defined as “unwanted sound,” but hazardous noise is a level and duration that can damage your hearing.
The easiest way to determine if noise is hazardous is the “arm’s length rule.” If you have to raise your voice to be heard over the noise by someone about one arm-length away, the noise is potentially at a hazardous level – about 85 decibels. Very short exposures (a few seconds in passing) are not a problem because the ear can recover from occasional short moderate exposures. But when the hazard is present for a longer period of time, depending on the level, it can cause permanent hearing loss.
How to protect yourself from hazardous noise
Overall, there are several ways to protect yourself from hazardous noise — at work or home:
· Decrease the noise level — generally the most obvious solution. Sometimes it’s as easy as turning down the volume.
· Limit your exposure. If you don’t have control over the noise level, it’s up to you to limit the amount of time that you are exposed to the hazardous noise.
· Distance yourself from the source of the noise. Each time you double the distance between you and the noise, the noise energy is cut in half.
· Place barriers between you and the noise source to decrease the level of noise reaching you. This could be as simple as walking behind a wall or covering your ears with your hands.
When noise is unavoidable, the best way to protect your hearing is to use an appropriate hearing protection device – earplugs or earmuffs. The specific model or style of earplug or earmuff that would work best is dependent on a variety of factors, including the intensity and duration of the noise, the individual involved, his or her ear canal shape, personal preferences, the environment and other factors.
For instance, for:
· Very short exposures: perhaps earmuffs or banded earplugs that are easy to take off and put on
· Extended exposures: maybe an earplug that is comfortable and blocks enough noise for proper protection;
· Sudden or impact noise: could require an electronic hearing protector that allows the wearer to hear what’s around him, but provides “instant” protection from intermittent sharp hazardous noise;
· Communication in a noisy environment: consider a communication earmuff or earplug.
Hearing is a key sense, and its protection is critical. But in the end, it’s up to each of us to ensure that our hearing is protected around hazardous noise.
By following good hearing conservation practices in noise, regardless of environment or task, we can maintain good hearing health — and safeguard the enjoyment and value of our good hearing.
* Dr Theresa Schulz is Hearing Conservation Manager for Honeywell Safety Products