Noise and hearing loss

Noise is an important part of any risk assessment and control programme. Its effects are profound and, unlike many other areas of health and safety where it is often a game of chance whether someone will be injured or not by a given risk, with noise it is almost an absolute certainty that hearing will be damaged.

There are two main effects of noise exposure.

Tinnitus
The most immediately visible effect is when the ears 'ring', which sounds trivial but is far from it. This ringing is something most people have felt - remember those glory days of youth when you'd fall out of a club at 2am and go to sleep with a ringing or 'whooshing' sound in your ears? In a lot of cases it fades away but after repeated exposure it can become permanent. Its caused by damage to the receptor cells in the inner-ear which basically are always-on, telling your brain that a sound is being heard. The sounds heard can include a whistle, a ringing, a buzzing, a wind-like noise or a kind of 'shhh' noise. (If its a voice saying "kill the Pope" then this is not tinnitus but does make you a little scary).

So what's the big deal? During the day its often no problem but at night when its quiet and you are trying to go to sleep the effects can be profound. People suffer extreme sleep depravation, going to lengths such as sleeping with the radio on just to drown out the noise their own ears are making. In very extreme cases surgery may be required to provide some respite.

As an aside, noise is not the only cause of tinnitus and sufferers need not panic that a slight ringing or whistling is going to be permanent. Often a cold is accompanied by it, pressure changes from flying can trigger temporary bouts or it can be caused by debris sitting against the ear drum.

Noise Induced Hearing Loss - NIHL
This one is the biggie. Hearing losses build up over time, usually without the person knowing about it. As with tinnitus, hearing damage may start off with a temporary loss after a lot of noise exposure, (back to that disreputable youth and clubbing again) but gets to the point where the hearing doesn't fully recover and losses start to build up. The effects are seen first in the higher frequencies meaning people start to miss out on the sharper consonants in speech such as 's', 'c', 't', etc. As these break words up and define them, speech can become a low-frequency mumble meaning its harder to follow.

This loss in hearing is permanent. To blatantly nick ASDA's promotional slogan - once its gone its gone.

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