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Perspectives in disease prevention and health promotion leading work-related diseases and injuries -- United States (noise-induced loss of hearing).

MMWR 1986 Mar; 35(12):185-188
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a suggested list of 10 leading work-related diseases and injuries (1). The first seven categories have been described (1-7); this article focuses on the eighth category, noise-induced loss of hearing. Occupational deafness was first documented among metalworkers in the sixteenth century (8). Since then, workers have experienced excessive hearing loss in many occupations associated with noise. Typical occupational and nonoccupational noise levels are shown in Figure 1. Noise-induced loss of hearing is an irreversible, sensorineural condition that progresses with exposure. Although hearing ability declines with age (presbycusis) in all populations, exposure to noise produces hearing loss higher than that resulting from the natural aging process; this is caused by damage to nerve cells of the inner ear (cochlea) and, unlike some conductive hearing disorders, cannot be treated medically. While loss of hearing may result from a single exposure to a very brief impulse noise or explosion, such traumatic losses are rare. In most cases, noise-induced hearing loss is insidious. Typically, it begins to develop at 4,000 hertz (Hz, or cycles per second) in the hearing range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz and spreads to lower and higher frequencies. Often, material impairment has occurred before the condition is clearly recognized. Such impairment is usually severe enough to permanently affect a person's ability to hear and understand speech under everyday conditions. Although the primary frequencies of human speech range from 200 Hz to 2,000 Hz, research has shown that the consonant sounds, which enable people to distinguish words such as "fish" from "fist," have still higher frequency components. As a result, an average hearing threshold (lowest audible sound level) at separate frequencies of 1,000 Hz, 2,000 Hz, and 3,000 Hz is used widely to define material impairment caused by noise (10,11). Recent estimates by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicate that about 9,400,000 U.S. production workers (7,900,000 active and 1,500,000 retired) either now work or have worked in industrial locations where noise-exposure levels are 80 decibels (dBA) or higher. This estimate includes most noisy workplaces in the United States, except agricultural, mining, construction, transportation, and government (Table 1) (11). At exposure levels below 80 decibels (weighted to the approximate response of the human ear, dBA), an increased risk of hearing loss caused by occupational noise has not been found. Based on the average hearing threshold level at 1,000 Hz, 2,000 Hz, and 3,000 Hz, OSHA estimated that 1,624,000 (17%) production workers have at least mild hearing loss resulting from their occupational noise exposures; 1,060,000 (11%) have material hearing impairment; and 473,000 (5%) have moderate to severe impairment (Table 2) (11). These estimates generally agree with NIOSH survey findings, which indicate that one-fourth of persons 55 years of age or older who have been exposed over their working lifetime to an average of about 90 dBA have developed a material hearing impairment caused by occupational noise exposure (10,12). An estimated $835 million will be paid in workers' compensation claims for occupational hearing impairment for the 10-year period 1978-1987 (13).
Noise-induced-hearing-loss; Noise-exposure; Noise; Noise-sources; Sound; Hearing; Hearing-acuity; Hearing-disorders; Hearing-impairment; Hearing-loss; Hearing-threshold
Publication Date
Document Type
Journal Article
Fiscal Year
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NIOSH Division
Source Name
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
Page last reviewed: September 2, 2020
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division