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“What’s That…? I Didn’t Hear You?” -melissa n., M.A., CCC-SLP

Please don’t tell my boyfriend about this article. He works in construction- underground municipal contracting, to be exact. He’s worked for a family owned construction company for six years, and I can tell. It’s borderline disturbing some days, the number of times that I hear, “What’s that?” He insists that he doesn’t have a hearing loss, but I know better. It is apparent that working in a “noisy” environment without the utilization of hearing protection has affected his hearing, and our conversations regarding the use of hearing protection on the jobsite are, to say the least, at times not quite conversations, but more like debates. Not only does he feel that he doesn’t have a hearing loss, but he provides many arguments for situations on the site in which wearing hearing protection would be more dangerous than not wearing it. The fact that hearing protection can be made to specifically allow for certain frequencies to be filtered and others allowed to pass through makes no difference.

My personal situation, as a Speech Pathologist with a dual Master’s degree in Audiology who has a significant other with a hearing loss due to noise exposure on the jobsite, has made me curious. When I was in graduate school, I envisioned myself going into Occupational Audiology if I didn’t work as a Speech Pathologist. Now, after thirteen years of working as an SLP, I am reminded of why I was passionate about hearing protection use in the workplace, and monitoring hearing loss of those who work in “noisy” environments.

Noise is considered any unwanted sound. Noise levels are measured by the ear’s sensitivity to sound, as measured on the decibel scale (dBA). A whisper is approximately 30 dBA, with casual conversation measuring 60-70 dBA. If two people conversing at arms’ length have to raise their voices, it is often an environment with noise 85 dBA, and power tools utilized on construction sites are typically 90-110 dBA. When noise levels reach 85 dBA or more, most state governing bodies require that hearing protection be worn for the duration of an eight hour shift, as duration of exposure is a factor in the effect that a dB level has on one’s hearing sensitivity. Any duration of exposure to a noise 115 dBA requires that hearing protection be used. (Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University  of Washington, 2004)

When reviewing the studies available regarding the use of hearing protection use by those in the field of Construction, I found that only about 30% of those who work in construction wore hearing protection when the noise level was a danger to their hearing sensitivity. Approximately a quarter of those in the construction field have abnormal hearing. OSHA requires that hearing protection be worn to specific guidelines when indicated, and companies are responsible by law to provide appropriate protective devices. Education regarding the use of hearing protection should be continued, but increased, in order to shatter the stigma of hearing protection being unnecessary.

I have a “close to home” reason for reminding myself that prevention is the best medicine when it comes to noise induced hearing loss due to noise exposure while at work. Finding local construction companies and providing free in services regarding the risk of hearing loss due to noise exposure is one way to assist our Audiology cohorts in their battle against occupational hearing loss. Providing information to friends and family who work in noisy environments is another. These are options that I have decided I will explore, while continuing my debate with my boyfriend… which I’m fairly certain I won’t win.

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