We Choose to Hear – And Listen

Tools To Educate

We Choose to Hear – And Listen

Hearing – and our ability to listen – defines our relationships and shapes our personalities. It keeps us connected to people and the environment around us, alerts us to danger, and helps to provide all of us with some form 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."

Over the years, we’ve met thousands of people all over the world who have shared their own personal stories, questions and comments about hearing loss. While we can’t respond to everyone, we can cover the most common – and often misunderstood – concerns about hearing loss and tactics to conserve your own hearing.

How does hearing loss happen?
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. Noise-induced hearing loss accumulates over time with every unprotected exposure to hazardous noise levels, its effects realized long after the damage has been done. NIHL is permanent and irreversible. With proper education, motivation and protection, however, it is 100% preventable.

With NIHL, ringing in the ears called tinnitus is sometimes the first indication that damage has occurred.  Then high frequency sounds 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 a noise-induced hearing loss, the clearness of speech is affected, and simply turning up the volume does not solve the problem.

What are your reasons? 
Everyone has personal reasons to keep their hearing safe. Here are some questions to help you answer why you want to keep your hearing safe:

  • What is your favorite sound?
  • When did hearing alert you to a danger?
  • What sounds do you hear right now?
  • What if you couldn’t hear?  What would you miss?
  • How would your job be affected if you couldn’t hear?

If somebody has a hearing loss, how can we tell whether it is caused by noise? 
Here are the five common indicators of noise-induced hearing loss:

  1. It is time-linked to the noise exposure. 
  2. It is almost always a high-frequency hearing loss first.
  3. It is usually bilateral [affects both ears equally]. There are some exceptions to this [for example, a truck driver who always has his window rolled down will have more noise exposure in the exposed ear than the unexposed ear]. But for employees who move around during the workday, the hearing loss is usually fairly equal in both ears.
  4. There is a gradual progression of hearing loss. We don’t measure hearing loss due to noise in terms of days or weeks. It usually takes us years to notice the permanent change in hearing.
  5. You experience the appropriate symptoms. If someone says he/she has pain in their ears, or drainage from their ears, this is probably NOT due to high noise levels. However, ringing in the ears [tinnitus] is a common symptom that goes hand-in-hand with noise-induced hearing loss.

How do I keep my hearing safe? 
First you need to know when your hearing is in danger. Noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss and hearing loss from noise is almost totally preventable! So that’s what we’ll focus on – protecting ourselves from hazardous noise.

What is hazardous noise?
Noise in general is “unwanted sound” but hazardous noise is at a level and duration that can damage our 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 arms-length away, the noise is potentially at a hazardous level. Very short exposures, a few minutes in passing, are no problem because the ear can recover from 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. 

To be sure you conserve your hearing, you need to protect yourself whenever you are exposed to hazardous noise – at work and at home. There are several ways to protect yourself from hazardous noise. 

The most obvious is to decrease the noise level. Sometimes that’s as easy as turning down the volume, but at other times you don’t have control over the noise level.  In those cases, the next step is to limit your exposure to the hazardous noise. That can be done by distancing yourself from the source of the noise. Every time you double the distance between you and the noise, the noise level is cut in half. And putting barriers between you and the noise source can decrease the noise level too. But again, sometimes you can’t do that. 

Your next step is to protect yourself from the noise. That usually involves wearing earplugs or earmuffs, but can be as simple as covering your ears with your hands.

How do I conserve my hearing?
The best way to conserve your hearing is to use an appropriate hearing protector when you are exposed to hazardous noise! But which earplug or earmuff is the best is dependent on your ear canal shape, the noise level, the duration of noise exposure, the type of noise, the environment and other factors. For example, for noise exposures due to firearm use, you might want an electronic hearing protector that allows you to hear what’s around you but protects you from the intermittent sharp hazardous noise of the firearm. For very short exposures, you might want earmuffs or banded earplugs that are easy to take off and put on. For extended exposures, you need to find an earplug that is comfortable and blocks enough noise to protect you. If you need to communicate in the noise, you might need a communication earmuff or earplug.  

What else can I do?
Your hearing is a key sense and it is yours to protect. You have every right to maintain good hearing even if you work and play around hazardous noise. Employers have the responsibility to provide a safe workplace and it’s up to each employee to ensure they work in a safe workplace. 

Following most national and local regulations, employers are required to provide a “variety of suitable hearing protectors”[1] at no cost to their workers. They are also required to provide an annual audiogram to monitor hearing health and provide Hearing Conservation training to workers.

In fact, many employers encourage their workers to take earplugs home for protection from off-the-job exposures.

Encouraging people to wear hearing protection off the job as well as on makes sense for other reasons as well. One of the most difficult tasks safety managers face with regard to Hearing Conservation is convincing employees of the risk. Talking about noise hazards present in everyday activities brings the Hearing Conservation message “home” in a very meaningful way. It gets everyone’s attention, helps make earplug use habitual, and more often than not, gets the neighbors attention as well.

Choose to hear [and listen]. Choose to maintain good hearing health. Choose to keep the enjoyment and value of good hearing – HearForever.

[1] OSHA 29 CFR 1910.95