Industrial deafness is also known as occupational deafness. It refers to noise-induced hearing loss that is a consequence of working in a loud environment for extended periods of time.
While issues related to hearing loss can develop in people naturally as a result of aging, workers involved in industries that are known to have high noise levels are a lot more susceptible to hearing conditions.
Different Types Of Industrial Deafness
As with most other afflictions, there are varying degrees of severity of industrial deafness. They may range from temporary loss of hearing to more severe conditions such as tinnitus, acoustic shock syndrome and permanent loss of hearing. There are also several different manifestations and varying degrees of hearing loss within each of these conditions. Some workers may suffer loss of hearing in only one ear, while others may lose their hearing in both ears to varying degrees.
Temporary Loss Of Hearing
This is also known as threshold shift and is experienced when a person is exposed to sounds ranging from 75 dB to 80 dB for several hours continuously. A certain amount of hearing loss is evident immediately, sometimes within a couple of hours of exposure. Once out of the noisy environment, sounds may appear muffled or dull and the person may have to increase the volume of the TV or radio.
In the case of temporary hearing loss, hearing typically comes back to normal levels after getting some rest in a quiet environment for a few hours.
Permanent Loss Of Hearing
Permanent loss of hearing occurs when a person is exposed to loud noises for a long duration (typically several years), without proper protection. Permanent hearing loss occurs when the hair cells within the ear deteriorate over time and are no longer replenished. People suffering from this condition will find it very difficult to follow conversations and can only pick up certain frequencies. In most cases, use of a hearing aid may help people to overcome this disability. However, in severe cases, even hearing aids cannot help and sufferers may have to resort to lip reading and sign language to communicate with others.
This is usually seen when someone is exposed to sudden loud noises such as high decibel shouting, explosions, loud feedback from headphones or gunshots. Depending upon the severity of the conditions, the noise may even cause the eardrum to perforate resulting in irreparable hearing damage.
There has been a marked increase in call center employees suffering from this condition in recent years. Even though most major earphone manufacturers limit the sound from headphones to 118 dB, some cheaper headphones do not have this feature. Internet phone headsets do not always have this feature either, exposing the user to higher risk of acoustic trauma.
Tinnitus is usually caused due to continuous exposure to loud sounds. It is characterised by ringing, droning, buzzing or whistling noises even when there are none.
It can cause difficulty in concentrating, disturb sleep and cause problems in hearing certain types of noises as well. Some cases can be managed with a device which emits a similar frequency as the buzzing or ringing and tricks the ear into not hearing it.
How Much Noise Is Too Much?
Guidelines across several countries, including the UK, stipulate that if noise levels of the workplace regularly exceed 80 decibels (dB), there is a definite risk of industrial deafness. While most people cannot carry around equipment to measure noise levels, there are a couple of simple tests to determine if the noise levels are within the prescribed range.
- Ask a colleague to stand about 2 meters away from you. If you have to shout to be heard, the noise levels are above 85 dB.
- Now, reduce the distance to 1 meter. If you still have to shout to make yourself heard, then you are being exposed to noise levels above 90 dB.
Irrespective of the results of the above tests, if you work in the vicinity of tools such as angle grinders, pneumatic drills, impact guns and high powered machine presses for even an hour a day, you are exposed to noise levels well above the prescribed limits. Typically, industries such as construction, quarrying, mining, engineering, call centres and the music industry are exposed to more noise than other industries.
What Are The Symptoms Of Industrial Deafness?
If you believe that your workplace is very loud and may have affected your hearing, you will most probably have some symptoms associated with industrial deafness. The following are a few indications that you may be suffering from industrial deafness:
- You struggle to hear someone speaking when there is a certain amount of background noise present.
- You tend to miss certain words or even large parts of conversations that are held in close proximities. If everyone else seems to follow without any issues, odds are high you are having trouble hearing.
- You have to turn up the volume on the TV, radio or music systems to levels that often seem way too loud to others around you.
- You have problems following conversations on the phone, even if the speaker volume is turned up.
- You can hear constant buzzing, ringing, droning, hissing, ticking or roaring noises regularly, even when you are in different places and nobody else around you can seem to hear any sounds at all.
- You have difficulty hearing certain frequencies of sound, especially those correspond closely to the ones you are exposed to at your workplace.
- You cannot hear too well in one or both ears.
Industrial deafness can be managed if it is detected in the early stages, while certain conditions are irreversible. However, the main challenge lies in being aware of the changes occurring in your hearing and being able to detect the above symptoms early before the damage becomes so extensive that your life is hampered.
Preventing Industrial Deafness?
In most case, there are things you and your employer can do to prevent industrial deafness.
All employers are required by law to put measures in place to safeguard their workers against all types of industrial injuries including deafness. This means they should implement noise-reducing strategies or use alternative equipment that is less noisy. If that is not possible, they must provide workers who are exposed to loud noises with appropriate hearing protection equipment. If you are not provided with such protective aids, you must ask for them and make sure you wear them at all times.
If you believe your employer has failed in their duty to protect you from suffering industrial deafness you may like to refer to this page on industrial deafness claims.