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When it comes to workplace noise, how loud is too loud?

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is well aware that work-related hearing loss is a big problem in the United States. According to federal data, some 30 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise, which results in thousands of people suffering noticeable hearing loss every year. How many thousands? Over 21,000 in 2009 alone.

Exposure to some very loud noises can cause permanent hearing loss right away or after only a few repetitions. Unfortunately, repeated or chronic exposure to lower-level noise can also damage your hearing, resulting in permanent tinnitus (ringing in the ears), partial hearing loss or full deafness. 

Worst of all, a hearing aid won't help with damage caused by noise. There is currently no surgery that can help, either. This is because of how the ear works. You may recall the basics from childhood. There are three tiny bones in the middle ear commonly called "the hammer," "the anvil" and "the stirrup," which transmit and amplify sound vibrations to the inner ear. A tiny structure the inner ear called the cochlea receives those vibrations via microscopic hairs, which translate the vibrations into what our brain recognizes as sound.

Exposure to a dangerously loud sound, or chronic exposure to a lower-level sound, actually destroys those tiny hairs. When that happens, the hearing loss is permanent -- there's nothing the amplification provided by a hearing aid can do.

Is my workplace dangerously loud?

It depends, of course, but a surprising range of employment settings can expose you to hazardous noise levels. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to implement an effective program to conserve workers' hearing whenever the average sound level is found to be 85 dBA (weighted decibels) or higher as averaged over an 8-hour exposure period. The louder the decibel level, the less time workers can legally be exposed to the noise.

If you ever leave work at the end of the day with ringing, buzzing sounds, a stuffed-up feeling in your ears, you've been exposed to a potentially dangerous level of noise. If it happens more than once, your employer needs to implement a hearing conservation program.

Remember, you have the right to a safe workplace. If you think your hearing has been damaged at work, or if you should ever be injured on the job, discuss your situation with a workers' compensation lawyer right away.

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