Workplace Noise: More than just “All Ears”

Posted on by Ellen Kerns, MPH, CPH, COHC and Elizabeth Masterson, PhD, CPH, COHC

Noise is everywhere, but how loud does it need to be to cause harm? While many people know that loud noise can hurt their ears, they don’t know how loud is too loud or how long they can listen before it becomes harmful.

  • Noise around 85 decibels (dBA) – which is loud enough that you must raise your voice to be heard by someone three feet away (arm’s length) – can damage your hearing after repeated exposures lasting 8 hours or more. Equipment, like printing presses and lawn mowers, and activities like vacuuming, or using earbuds or headphones with the volume set around 70%, all average about 85-90 dBA.
  • When noise reaches 95 dBA – which is loud enough that you must shout to be heard by someone at arm’s length – it can put your hearing at risk in less than an hour. Bulldozers, ambulance sirens, chain saws, bars/nightclubs and large sporting events are all louder than 95 dBA.

Noise Can Hurt More Than Your Ears

In addition to damaging hearing, loud noise can cause other physical stress as well as mental stress. Often the short-term effects of such stress go unnoticed or are blamed on other things. These symptoms can range from feeling tired and/or irritable to having temporarily high blood pressure or muffled hearing. Over time, with repeated exposure to loud noise, more lasting conditions can develop, such as hearing loss (a permanent condition), and it is unknown if these exposures may also lead to more lasting cardiovascular conditions, such as high blood pressure.

While it has been established that noise causes hearing loss, there is new research exploring whether noise can also contribute to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. Recently, a new NIOSH study, titled “Cardiovascular Conditions, Hearing Difficulty, and Occupational Noise Exposure within U.S. Industries and Occupations,” looked into the relationship between loud noise at work and conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hearing difficulty. This study found:

  • Twenty-two million workers experience loud noise on the job each year.
  • Most hearing difficulty cases among workers (58%) were linked to loud noise on the job and could be prevented if the noise was reduced to safe levels.
  • Nine percent of high cholesterol and 14 percent of high blood pressure cases among workers could be linked to loud noise on the job.
  • Workers with a history of loud noise on the job were less likely to have had their blood pressure or their cholesterol checked.

Fortunately, workplace noise exposure can be reduced and occupational hearing loss entirely prevented with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technology. This NIOSH study also highlighted the importance of workers getting screened regularly for hearing loss, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and the benefits of workplace health and wellness programs. These programs have been shown to have a substantial return on investment, by reducing losses in productivity from disease progression and boosting morale. Workers exposed to loud noise may especially benefit from these programs.

If you want to help get a discussion started please pose a question in the comment section below.

Visit the NIOSH Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance website for more information, including industry sector-specific statistics on hearing loss, tinnitus, and noise exposure.

Visit the NIOSH Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention website for guidelines and recommendations for employers and workers to help reduce noise exposure at the workplace.


Ellen Kerns, MPH, CPH, COHC, was an Epidemiological Fellow in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies and is now a Research Data Analyst at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

Elizabeth Masterson, PhD, CPH, COHC, is an Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies

Posted on by Ellen Kerns, MPH, CPH, COHC and Elizabeth Masterson, PhD, CPH, COHC

8 comments on “Workplace Noise: More than just “All Ears””

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    I am familiar with the NIOSH REL for noise and revised criteria document. What does NIOSH use or recommend for a dosimeter threshold setting when conducting personal noise monitoring (e.g., 80 dB, 70 dB, no threshold) and why?

    OSHA and ACGIH use 80 dB threshold. The EU noise directive and UK Noise at Work regulations do not specify a threshold.

    Thank you for your question. NIOSH recommends using the 80 dB threshold for dosimeters when conducting personal noise monitoring. The main reason is that noise levels below 80 dB(A) were found to contribute very little to the overall exposure. This information can be found in the NIOSH Occupational Noise Exposure Criteria document at:

    Respected Sir / Madam,
    I have been exposed to the loud noise of jet aircraft for over 30 years. Initially i had no hearing deficiency. However, my audiogram in Jun 2017 was as follows:-
    Lt ear – 25 dB till 1 KHz, 45-55 dB at 2-3 KHz, 60-65 at 3-8 KHz
    Rt ear – 25 dB till 2 KHz, 35 dB at 3-6 KHz, 55 dB at 8 KHz
    This was categorised as Sensori Neural Hearing Loss (Bilateral) – (15-19%)
    What percentage of hearing disability would you categorise this as ?

    Since Jun 2017, i have not been exposed to loud noise. However my audiogram as on Apr 2019 is as follows:-
    Lt ear-250 Hz-10 dB, 500 Hz-25 dB, 1 Khz-30 dB, 2 Khz-45 dB, 4 Khz -65 dB,
    8 Khz-80 dB
    Rt ear-250 Hz-20 dB, 500 Hz-30 dB, 1 Khz-35 dB, 2 Khz-55 dB, 4 Khz -65 dB,
    8 Khz-65 dB
    What percentage of hearing disability would you categorise this as ?
    Also, why is my hearing loss increasing even though i am not exposed to loud noises now?
    What is the effect of continued exposure to loud noise on high cholestrol?
    Is my hearing likely to deteriorate further, even though i am not exposed to loud noise anymore? If so, why is this?
    Currently, i miss out on certain sounds like doorbell, mobile ring tone, etc. I do not face any particular difficulty in one to one conversations with people. However, i do miss out on some details when speaking in a group / crowd. My age is 57 years.
    Your response to my above queries will be highly appreciated.
    Krishnan Sundarram

    Thank you for your questions. We cannot comment on your individual health condition. However, it is unlikely that you would have continued hearing loss due to noise after the exposures have ended. There are many other causes of hearing loss that can account for continued hearing loss after noise exposure ceases including: increasing age, disease, physical trauma, genetics, ototoxic chemical exposures, and some medications. We suggest consulting your physician to explore these possibilities.

    Occupational noise exposure has been found to be associated with high cholesterol. However, we do not know if it causes high cholesterol and there is insufficient research to know what long-term effects noise may have on cholesterol.

    Glad to read your article. I am a safety specialist working for US army in Korea and also traffic engineer and work on PHD thesis and decided ti write about Traffic Noise in Korea. Please help me out providing sources and other thesis written by noise expert in US and Europe about Traffic Noise study. In Korea rarely can I see those subject articles.
    Thank you

    Is there a difference of impact between 80 decibels of low frequency noise and 80 decibels of screeching noise (high frequency) on the ears and body?
    If so, please let me know so I can help people exposed to high frequency noise that still are considered safe by OHSHA – 90 decibels for 8 hours

    Thank you

    Both high and low frequency noise, depending on decibel level and duration of exposure, can be harmful. NIOSH recommends exposure be limited to 85 decibels for an 8-hour time-weighted average. This is a recommendation while OSHA’s exposure limit of 90 decibels for an 8-hour time-weighted average is the minimum required federal regulation. Both, however, are based on protecting hearing and not the cardiovascular system. It is possible that a lower level of noise may affect the cardiovascular system. However, more research is needed to identify what the appropriate recommended noise exposure limit might be to protect the cardiovascular system. All required and recommended exposure limits are based on an average, as each individual’s susceptibility to noise varies.

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Page last reviewed: June 28, 2018
Page last updated: June 28, 2018