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Noise Takes a Toll

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An example of noises that can damage your hearing. Continuous exposure to dB levels of 85 or higher can easily result in hearing damage. Courtesy of OSHA.

How many times has someone told you to take care of your hearing?  Anyone who works in a busy shop is subjected to a range of noises every day....pneumatic wrenches and impact guns, drills, air compressors turning on, vehicle horns, vehicle alarm system screeches, hammers striking metal, etc. Some of these noises, especially repeated exposure to certain noises, can damage your hearing. We all know how important it is to wear eye protection to save your eyeballs from fluids or metal chips, and to wear reinforced work shoes to save our toes from being mashed by heavy objects and gloves to protect our skin from certain chemicals or from handling hot and/or sharp objects,  but many of us tend to ignore ear protection, often assuming that “the noise only lasts for a few seconds, so it won’t matter.”

Well, it does matter. Noise is measured in decibels (dB). Consider a few examples produced by common noise:  A human whisper voice is around 30 dB. Volume of a normal conversation is around 60 dB. While low-noise air compressors certainly exist, some may produce around 90 dB. A pneumatic air drill can produce around 96 dB. An impact gun might produce around 100+ dB. A chop saw can provide as much as 105 dB. A car horn can produce around 109 dB. A car alarm might scream at around 125 dB. 

With that said, consider this: Anything over about 85 dB for prolonged periods can damage your hearing. A single noise over 120 dB can result in immediate short-term or long-term hearing damage.  Depending on the noise level and the exposure time, the damage may only last for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks.  But in the worst-case scenario, the damage can be permanent. 

Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through the ear canal, hitting the eardrum. As the eardrum vibrates, vibrations are sent to tiny bones inside the middle ear. This vibration then moves into a fluid-filled part in the inner ear. As this fluid ripples, tiny hair cells move and bend which can kill these hair cells. Once damaged, these hair cells don’t grow back, resulting in a level of hearing loss. Further along, there’s a nerve pack. If excess noise shocks this nerve bundle, they can restrict, stopping blood flow in the nerves. If they don’t eventually relax and gain flow, hearing loss can be permanent.

While it may seem funny at the moment when a loud noise shocks your ears and your hearing whistles or rings, you might think that you’re a tough guy and just laugh it off.  Maybe you’ll get lucky and your hearing returns to at least what appears to be normal, you may be on the road to eventual hearing impairment. Speaking as someone who blithely ignored occasional noise blasts over the years, and ended up losing all hearing in my left ear, believe me... the potential for hearing loss is not to be taken lightly. 

If you haven’t done so already, buy some good ear protection and actually remember to wear them when you anticipate being exposed to loud noises. By “good,” I mean high quality hearing protection, not just a couple of cotton balls stuffed into your ears. While your local parts and tool suppliers may offer various versions, consider those intended for target shooters. Hearing “muff” type protectors are available in noise-cancelling designs what allow you to hear conversations and other “normal” noises, but activate and protect the ears as soon as a specific dB level is reached. 

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) offers an app that can be used on a smartphone, serving as a personal sound meter. See www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/app.html

Take this seriously. It only takes one bad mistake to permanently damage your hearing.

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