Loud and Clear
We live in a noisy world. Combat military weaponry, personal and vehicle stereos and high-powered machinery are just a few of the noises Soldiers are exposed to every day. Excessive noise disrupts sleep, produces stress, impairs communication and, in high enough doses, causes significant noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hearing problems — including tinnitus, which is a ringing, buzzing, whistling or other sound in the ears or head without an external source — are by far the most prevalent service-connected disability among American veterans. Much of the hearing loss these individuals suffered is largely due to preventable, noise-induced wear and tear on the auditory system that happened much earlier in their lives.
Soldiers are required to have an audiogram conducted each year to monitor hearing loss. If the test reveals sufficient hearing loss, the medical staff attempts to identify the type and educate the Soldier on hearing conservation to prevent future hearing loss. Often the education process is nothing more than the issuance of earplugs and a hearing conservation pamphlet that explains how to protect your hearing. The Soldier may attempt to arrest the hearing loss by wearing hearing protection for a few days, possibly even a couple of weeks. Eventually, though, many will fall back on their old ways until the next annual audiogram, at which time the cycle is repeated.
Numerous sources of noise in the environment have the potential to produce NIHL. Because shooting is so prevalent in our military culture, it poses the greatest risk to many Soldiers’ hearing. Clinical reports documenting hearing loss after exposure to shooting have been documented since the 1800s. Reported peak sound levels from weapons have ranged from 132 decibels (dB) for small-caliber rifles and pistols to more than 172 dBs for high-powered rifles and shotguns. What does this decibel scale mean to the Soldier?
It is difficult to grasp how much acoustic energy is in a single gunshot. The acoustic energy in a single report from a high-powered rifle, pistol or shotgun is equivalent to almost 40 hours of continuous exposure at 90 dBA. In other words, one bullet equals one week of hazardous occupational noise exposure according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Defense standards. Because shells are often packaged in boxes of 50, shooting an entire box without hearing protection is equivalent to working in a 90 dBA environment for a full year! A Soldier qualifying on a target range without hearing protection can produce an entire year’s worth of hazardous occupational noise exposure in just a few minutes.
Currently, the only way to detect functional hearing loss is through routine hearing tests. Unfortunately, by the time functional hearing impairment is detected, injury to the auditory system is usually at an advanced stage. Therefore, the key to prevention is education.
Leaders can assist Soldiers at risk for hearing loss by teaching them to avoid exposure to unwanted noise and how to become more sensible when exposing themselves to desired sounds. For example, leaders can recommend all Soldiers avoid other noisy activities the day before and day of firing weapons on a target range. Research has shown that rest periods interspersed with an otherwise hazardous exposure to noise can greatly reduce auditory damage.
In situations where noise cannot be eliminated, Soldiers should be advised to wear hearing protection. The most commonly used types of protection are earplugs or earmuffs, which come in a variety of styles and sizes. The advantages of earplugs include their small size, low cost and relative comfort. On the other hand, earmuffs fit over the ear, are heavier than earplugs and are reusable. When kept in good condition, earmuffs can also be considerably cheaper than disposable earplugs. However, a seal must be made between the earmuff cushion and the side of the head; any break in the seal renders the earmuff useless.
Most Soldiers will find foam earplugs the protection of choice because they are inexpensive, comfortable, disposable and commercially available. While each is effective and wearing both is often recommended, the most effective type of earplug or earmuff is the one that is actually used.
Although there is a lot of published information on NIHL, it is usually undetected until the damage is already done. While efforts have been made to reduce noises at their source, educating Soldiers on the importance of preserving hearing into their old age is the best method for conservation. Leaders can help Soldiers understand the importance of preserving their hearing for their golden years by becoming involved and taking precautionary steps to prevent NIHL. Did You Know?
October is recognized as National Protect Your Hearing Month. For information about protecting yourself from noise-induced hearing loss, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/.