Hearing loss is a common complication in work environments, affecting family, friends, and strangers alike. Work-related hearing loss caused by noise may be preventable, but many don’t take it seriously until it’s too late and the loss—known as sensorineural hearing loss—is irreversible and permanent.
Work-related hearing loss continues to be a critical workplace safety and health issue. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the occupational safety and health community named hearing loss one of the 21 priority areas for research in the next century. Noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable, but once acquired, it is permanent and irreversible. Therefore, prevention measures must be taken by employers and workers to ensure the protection of workers’ hearing.
Approximately 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise on the job, and an additional nine million are at risk for hearing loss from other agents such as solvents and metals. We need to think beyond the factory workers, construction workers, and service-related employees who may be affected. What other professionals are commonly vulnerable to hearing loss?
Among the populations at greatest risk are dental-industry professionals. Think about the drills utilized in a dentist’s office, which can produce a level of noise exceeding 100dB. (OSHA standards state that noise exposure over 80dB for an eight-hour period requires the individual to wear ear protection.) What is that noise exposure doing to their ears?
Dentists and their assistants, who are consistently exposing themselves to these drills and other dental instruments, put themselves at risk for developing a sensorineural hearing loss. Typically, the most damage and highest level of permanent, noise-induced hearing loss is caused by older drills and instruments. The Industrial Deafness Watch, whose job is to educate the public about worked-related hearing loss, is very concerned. They stated that newer dental equipment made within the last five years is designed to reduce noise levels and is quieter than older products.
While realizing how this equipment may affect the dental professional, there are many people for whom facing a dentist’s drill can be quite overwhelming—for example patients with hyperacusis. People with hyperacusis have an increased sensitivity to particular frequency and volume ranges of sound, making certain environmental sounds intolerable.
The good news is, laser drilling can offer a very quiet option if the work required is for a tooth with no prior fillings. However there are currently no options for laser drilling on teeth with fillings. A majority of dentists still use air-powered dental drills, which have measured up to 95dB in recent noise-level tests.
A better option is an electric dental drill, which typically has a much lower noise-level rating. One of the best options on the market currently is the KaVo COMFORTdrive 200 XDR, which is rated at 57dB. However, Hyperacusis Research tested one of these dental appliances in a dentist office with a consumer level sound decibel meter, and it peaked well above 80dB. Since the sound measurements were significantly higher than the advertised rating, it would be wise to perform your own sound test prior to being exposed to any dental drill.
Our dental professionals are here to serve and take care of us. We, in turn, can let them know how much we care about their hearing health. Don’t be afraid to let them know you’re concerned about them protecting their hearing by advising them to consider these measures:
- Make the office soundproof and noise-absorbent.
- Research the level of the equipment that is being used.
- Protect their ears with custom-made ear plugs.
Dentists and other dental workers might be suffering from early signs of hearing loss just like workers in other environments. Such symptoms may include:
- Muffled or muted conversations
- Difficulty concentrating on a conversation in noisy surroundings
- Inability to hear certain consonants, such as “s” or “t” sounds
- Tinnitus, or ringing, in the ears and/or hyperacusis
If your friend, dentist, or dental assistant has noticed some or all of these signs, encourage them to contact an audiologist quickly to get their hearing checked and find out what they can do to prevent against hearing loss. Their job is to make your smile pretty; your job is to help them seek advice, and you will be smiling from ear to ear knowing you made a difference in their life.❦