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Worker Hearing Loss

Woman working at desk and wearing ear buds

Did you know that within every industry sector, there are workers at risk for work-related hearing loss? Work-related hearing loss is common and preventable. Learn more about hearing loss within your industry and how to prevent it.

Is work-related hearing loss a major problem?

In the United States, hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition after high blood pressure and arthritis. It is more common than diabetes, vision trouble, or cancer. Not surprisingly, hearing loss is among the most common work-related illnesses. Over 11% of the working population has hearing difficulty, and nearly one out of four cases of worker hearing difficulty are caused by work-related exposures. These exposures include loud noise and chemicals causing damage to the inner ear (ototoxic chemicals). Ototoxic chemicals include organic solvents like trichloroethylene, heavy metals like mercury and lead, and asphyxiants like carbon monoxide.

Noise is considered loud and potentially harmful (hazardous) when it reaches 85 decibels or higher, or if a person has to raise his/her voice to speak with someone 3 feet away (arm’s length).

Man wearing protective headphones and working in lumber yard

If you are listening to music or something else, keep the volume at a safe level and only listen in areas that are not noisy.

Which workers are at risk?

In the U.S. workplace:

  • About 22 million workers (17%) are exposed to hazardous noise each year;
  • About 10 million workers are exposed to solvents, which can damage hearing; and
  • An unknown number of workers are exposed to other ototoxic chemicals that can damage hearing.

There are workers in every industry sector that are exposed to noise or chemicals that can damage hearing, or both.

Among all noise-exposed workers, 19% have hearing impairment. Hearing impairment is hearing loss that impacts day-to-day activities, such as making it difficult to understand speech. However, some industry sectors such as Mining and Construction have even higher percentages of workers with hearing impairment.

Learn more about worker hearing loss and noise exposure within your industry sector, including trends in hearing loss over time on the NIOSH Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance topic page under NIOSH OHL Statistics.

Person working in lab

Reduce exposure to chemicals that may damage your hearing by wearing gloves, long sleeves, eye protection, and as appropriate, other protective equipment.

Why is prevention important?

  • Almost all work-related hearing loss is permanent, and it can have a profound impact on quality of life.
  • As hearing loss worsens, hearing and understanding others becomes increasingly more difficult, which can lead to isolation.
  • Hearing loss is associated with cognitive (mental) decline and heart problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Hearing loss is also strongly associated with depression.
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus), which often occurs along with hearing loss, can disrupt sleep and concentration and is associated with both depression and anxiety.
  • Safety can also be impacted at home and on the job.
  • Income is typically lower among hearing-impaired workers than among workers with normal hearing.
  • There are other effects, such as loss of enjoyment, when all of the sounds we want to hear (e.g., music, voice of loved one) become muted and lack quality.

Fortunately, with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technologies, work-related hearing loss can be entirely prevented.

What can workers do to prevent work-related hearing loss?

  • Find out if the noise in your workspace is hazardous.
    • If you have to raise your voice to speak with someone at arm’s length, then the noise is likely at a hazardous level. Or check the noise level using a sound level meter app on your phone, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app.
  • Reduce your noise exposure:
    • Reduce noise at the source of the noise. Use quieter equipment and keep equipment well maintained and lubricated.
    • Enclose the source of the noise or place a barrier between you and the source.
    • Increase the distance between you and the source of the noise.
    • Reduce your time in noisy areas.
    • Always wear hearing protection in noisy areas, and if using foam plugs, insert them correctly.
    • If you are listening to music or something else, keep the volume at a safe level and only listen in areas that are not noisy.
  • Reduce or stop exposure to chemicals that may damage your hearing:
    • Use a less-toxic or non-toxic chemical.
    • Wear gloves, long sleeves and eye protection.
    • Wear a respirator or other protective equipment, as appropriate.
    • Read and follow all chemical safety instructions.
  • Learn more about hearing loss prevention here.