Have Fun at Sporting Events—But Protect Your Hearing, Too
According to OSHA, around 22 million workers are exposed to damaging noise every year. Hearing loss is particularly prevalent in the construction industry, where workers can be exposed to damaging noise from equipment for long periods. One CDC study has shown that 51 percent of all construction workers have been exposed to damaging noise, while in another study, 16 percent of participating construction workers had hearing loss in both ears.
While we’re used to associating loud noise levels with industries like construction, we may be less aware of hearing loss in the sporting industry. According to Today’s Hearing, a hearing care service based in Texas, “Levels in some of the loudest football stadiums can reach up to 100 decibels [. . .]. It may only take one game to cause damage to your ears. Those who attend football games regularly are at an even greater risk because the noise effects on the ears are cumulative as well.” Furthermore, loud noises at sporting events can lead to conditions such as tinnitus, which causes ringing in the ears, and hyperacusis, which increases sensitivity to ordinary sounds.
A NIOSH blog post has reported similar effects in the racing car industry:
Overall, area noise-level measurements taken during race preparation, practice, qualification, and competition exceeded the NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) of 85 decibels, A-weighted (dBA) and the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 90 dBA. The highest area noise levels were found in the “pit” area. Peak sound pressure levels in the “pit” area at all three racetracks reached and exceeded 130 dB—often recognized as the human hearing threshold for pain.
The blog post also states that some famous drivers have come forward in recent years to talk about the hearing loss they have faced after participating in the sport. Despite these reports, efforts to install mufflers on racecars have failed in the past because the quiet cars were less popular with both racers and race attendees.
The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene has published several papers about noise associated with sporting events. A study in the December 2016 issue found that the mean personal noise exposure of on-ice officials in a junior-level hockey league was 93 dBA. An earlier JOEH study found that peak noise levels in two arenas that hosted collegiate hockey games ranged from 105 to 124 dBA in one venue and from 110 to 117 dBA in the other. (AIHA members who wish to access JOEH most first log in to their member profile.)
The American Academy of Audiology has published a chart (PDF) that ranks noise levels ranging from faint (the rustling of leaves, 20 dBA) to painful and dangerous (gunshots, 140 dBA). Sporting events, at 100 dBA, fall in the “very loud” category along with concerts and car horns. The sound levels at these events are dangerous when experienced for over 30 minutes. The chart notes that noise levels over 85 dBA for extended periods can cause permanent hearing loss.
According to Today’s Hearing, attendees at football games—including players, cheerleaders, referees, and other staff—should consider wearing earmuffs or earplugs to protect themselves. These devices can reduce the sound by up to 30 decibels. Experts also recommend that racecars have mufflers installed to reduce noise. If that is not possible, the solution is to wear earplugs or earmuffs. Unfortunately, a report from CDC in 2018 indicated that only 8 percent of respondents to a national survey consistently used hearing protection at sporting or entertainment events.
In the United States, the federal government has rules and programs in place to set noise standards for employers to protect workers and track work-related hearing loss.
OSHA’s noise standard requires employers to keep noise exposure below 90 decibels for an eight-hour workday to keep workers safe. If the noise exposure in a workplace exceeds 85 decibels, employers must create hearing conservation programs to protect their workers.
Furthermore, NIOSH also hosts the Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance system, which tracks and analyzes data about worker hearing loss across the country. The program partners with audiometric companies to collect worker audiograms. This surveillance helps determine high-risk groups, design interventions, and evaluate those interventions. However, it is not clear how much of the data in the surveillance pertains to hearing loss in the sporting industry, as the current data set only cites worker hearing loss in the sporting manufacturing industry and not from the sporting events themselves.
Not much legislation regarding hearing loss at sporting events exists at the federal and state levels. But cities can model new legislation for the sporting industry based on laws passed previously to protect workers and customers in other high-decibel industries, such as the nightlife industry. In 2014, the city of Minneapolis passed an ordinance that would provide free earplugs to all employees and customers at certain establishments that serve alcohol.
AIHA members can act on this issue if interested. AIHA University has resources such as the sixth edition of the Noise Manual, where members can learn about the strategies to mitigate the effects of noise. AIHA also has a public-facing page on its website dedicated to the issue, where people can learn about the effects of noise and find links to other government resources on the issue. Furthermore, the AIHA Noise Committee is a volunteer group where members can specifically discuss the issue of hearing loss at sporting events and obtain educational resources.
If you are interested in getting involved with noise-related public policy, join the Government Relations Committee.
Related: Read “Tune Out the Noise” on SynergistNOW and “Everyday Noise: Suggestions for Protecting Our Hearing in a Noisy Society” from the October 2014 Synergist.