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Beware New Headphones: These ‘Buds’ May Not Be for You

iPods and MP3 players present a new risk of workplace hearing loss, particularly when used with earbud-style headphones. Here are some steps to reduce these and other hearing-loss risks.

You see it all around you … good hearing gone bad. Or at least going bad, according to recent studies warning that high-volume iPods and MP3 players in the workplace, in the gym – and almost everywhere else – are causing irreparable hearing loss in young people.

“We’re seeing the kind of hearing loss in younger people typically found in aging adults,” said Dean Garstecki, a Northwestern University audiologist and professor.

Exacerbating the problem is a sort of “perfect storm” of technological advances, including devices that produce music at higher volumes without the distortion of earlier models (thus encouraging loud settings), better batteries that allow for longer listening times between recharging, and headphones or “earbuds” that fit into the ear itself.

“Unfortunately, the earbuds preferred by music listeners are even more likely to cause hearing loss than the muff-type earphones that were associated with the older devices,” Garstecki said.


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Not only are earbuds placed directly into the ear, but also, they can boost the sound signal by as much as 6 to 9 decibels. “That’s the difference in intensity between the sound made by a vacuum cleaner and the sound of a motorcycle engine,” said Garstecki.

The House Ear Institute’s website, EarBud.org, says it’s time to turn down the volume if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Voices are suddenly sounding muffled or hard to understand.
  • You experience ringing, buzzing, or fluttering in one or both ears.
  • Your ears hurt after being in a loud place.
  • Your hearing is suddenly super-sensitive to noise.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is definitely not something you want, according to the Institute, which notes that:

  • It’s irreversible.
  • It can happen to anyone at any age.
  • Symptoms may be temporary but the damage is permanent.

But it is no easy task convincing your workforce – particularly younger workers – of the dangers of working while listening to high-volume music. Fortunately, there are a couple of handy applications available to help you bring home the point, including EarBud.org’s Hearing Simulator, which approximates the effects of hearing loss caused by noise-induced damage, general aging, and tinnitus.


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Another helpful tool is the Hearing Loss Simulator available from the website of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It is a computer software training tool designed to demonstrate the effects of noise exposure without the employee having to actually experience noise-induced hearing loss (thank goodness).

This free, Windows-based program uses different worker scenarios, (for example, an older worker who has suffered a hearing loss injury versus an older worker who has not) to demonstrate the importance of protecting one’s hearing from workplace noise exposure.

NIOSH also provides an accompanying training guide to help you get across these points:

  • Noise levels affect hearing loss.
  • Hearing loss worsens as the duration of the noise exposure increases.
  • Hearing loss can become permanent.
  • Age does not cause most hearing loss.
  • Speech is made up of both low- and high-pitched sounds.
  • Hearing loss due to noise exposure makes it more difficult to hear high-pitched sounds.

Garstecki has some specific recommendations for lessening the risks of hearing loss from iPod or MP3 player use. We’ll look at those in tomorrow’s Advisor, along with additional steps you can take to help safeguard your workers from harmful noise exposures, along with a tool that can make every safety training need easier.

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