Exposure to noise at work can harm workers’ health. The most well-known effect of noise at work is loss of hearing, a problem observed among coppersmiths in 1731.
However, it can also exacerbate
stress and increase the risk of accidents. This article describes the effects of workplace noise.
Hearing impairment can be due to a mechanical blockage in the
transmission of sound to the inner ear (conductive hearing loss)
or damage to the hair cells in the cochlea, part of the inner ear
(sensorineural hearing loss). Rarely, hearing impairment may also
be caused by central auditory processing disorders (when the
auditory centres of the brain are affected).
Noise-induced hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most common occupational
disease in Europe, accounting for about one third of
all work-related diseases, ahead of skin and respiratory problems
NIHL is usually caused by prolonged exposure to loud noise. The
first symptom is normally the inability to hear high-pitched
sounds. Unless the problem of excessive noise is addressed, a
person’s hearing will deteriorate further, including difficulties detecting
lower-pitched sounds. This will normally occur in both
ears. The damage of noise-induced hearing loss is permanent.
Hearing loss can occur without long-term exposures. Brief exposure
to impulsive noises (even a single strong impulse), such as
from gunshots or nail or rivet guns can have permanent effects,
including loss of hearing and continuous tinnitus. Impulses can
also split the eardrum membrane. This is painful but the damage
Tinnitus is a ringing, hissing or booming sensation in your ears.
Excessive exposure to noise increases the risk of tinnitus. If the
noise is impulsive (e.g. blasting), the risk can rise substantially.
Tinnitus can be the first sign that your hearing has been damaged
Noise and chemicals
Some dangerous substances are ototoxic (literally ‘ear poisoning’).
Workers exposed to some of these substances and to loud
noise appear to be at greater risk of hearing damage than those
exposed to either noise or the substances separately.
This synergy has been particularly noted between noise and
some organic solvents, including toluene, styrene, and carbon
disulphide. These substances may be used in noisy environments
in sectors such as the plastics and printing industries, and paint
and lacquer manufacturing.
Noise and pregnant workers
Exposure of pregnant workers to high noise levels at work can
affect the unborn child. ‘Prolonged exposure to loud noise may
lead to increased blood pressure and tiredness. Experimental
evidence suggests that prolonged exposure of the unborn child