Workplace noise: The jobs that put your hearing at risk

Workplace noise can lead to one of the most common occupational diseases in Australia – noise-induced hearing loss. And it can have serious knock-on effects.

More than 1.1 million Australians are exposed to hazardous workplace noise.

Some occupations are an obvious risk of hearing loss – for example, as you’d probably expect, musicians, builders and airport ground staff have some of the noisiest jobs.

But farmers, emergency department staff and even teachers can also be exposed to potentially damaging noise at work.

“If you need to raise your voice to speak to someone who’s one metre away, it’s a sign your workplace is noisy,” Hearing Australia principal audiologist Karen Hirschausen says.

The hidden risks of hearing loss

Deteriorating hearing can have a big impact on health and wellbeing in more ways than you might think.

Dr Bec Bennett, of Curtin University and the Ear Science Institute Australia, says worsening hearing loss impacts people’s behaviour, preventing them from participating in social activities or withdrawing from social interactions altogether.

“My earlier research identified that people with hearing loss also experienced listening fatigue, social disconnection and many other social anxiety symptoms,” Dr Bennett, who’s leading a project to develop a free app to support people living with hearing loss, says.

“It is common for people with hearing loss to feel excluded at social gatherings; even with hearing aids, people can often feel frustrated, embarrassed and exhausted by having to strain to keep up with the conversation, and inevitably, people start to withdraw.”

US research shows hearing loss is also linked with walking problems, a higher risk of falls and can even double the risk of dementia.

How to prevent workplace-related hearing loss

To help raise awareness of occupational noise-induced hearing loss, Hearing Australia has released a prevention toolkit.

“If you do work in a noisy environment, it’s important that you use hearing protection and that it’s used appropriately – for example, ensuring a good fit of earplugs or earmuffs,” Karen says.

Karen also recommends taking breaks from the noise where possible.

“Noise-induced losses are cumulative – the more time you spend in noise, the more likely your ears are to suffer damage, so taking breaks can help,” she says.

Other tips to help protect your hearing on the job include purchasing and using “quieter” equipment, using remote controls to operate noisy equipment from a distance, and immediately reporting any hearing-related issues or discomfort to your employer.

Getting your hearing checked regularly is also important.

Worried you’re already experiencing hearing loss?

“Talking to your GP or an audiologist is a great first step,” Karen says, highlighting the benefits of detecting hearing loss as early as possible to help prevent further damage.

Unfortunately, on average, it takes 10 years for people to seek help for hearing loss but Karen says it’s never too late to address any concerns about your hearing.

“Understanding what preventative measures can be taken to reduce further damage can be really helpful,” she says.

“But addressing hearing loss early on can help keep people connected to both the people and the activities that they love and enjoy.”

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Written by Karen Fittall.