We’ve all heard the jokes and teasing that goes on about hair loss, especially for men “above a certain age.” For many people, losing their hair is a significant issue — but what does it have to do with lab safety? Well, the hair loss we’re talking about doesn’t occur on the top of one’s head. And it’s hair loss that our culture is not paying nearly the same amount of attention to it as that other hair-loss epidemic. Yet according to government statistics, half of people over the age of 75, and nearly a quarter of the U.S. population over 65, are categorized as “disabled” by this other hair loss. And it’s not just older people being affected: Every year, as many as 20,000 people are disabled by hair loss occurring at the workplace.
The Connection between Hair and Hear
So what is this hair loss that is disabling so many people? The hairs that are being lost are the tiny, very fine hairs that line the cochlea, or inner ear. These microscopic hairs move with vibrations received by the outer ear and transmitted to the inner ear, converting sound waves into nerve impulses. Without these hairs, we cannot hear.
And while science has devoted a good deal of research funding attempting to figure out how hair can be transplanted onto balding scalps, amazingly we have yet to come up with a workable solution for replacing the microscopic hairs that allow us to hear.
How Do These Hairs Die?
The greatest culprit for hearing loss is prolonged exposure to loud noises. Research has shown that prolonged noise above a certain decibel level will destroy the hair follicles in the fine nerve cells of the inner ear.
That said, if you are exposed to short bursts of loud sounds, such as gunfire or a fireworks display, the hair follicles in your ears will recover if given sufficient time. That’s why some professionals advise taking a “noise diet” after such exposure, in order to give your ears time to recuperate.
However, if you are exposed to loud noises on a daily basis, such as at work, your ears won’t have sufficient recovery time. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration states that the permitted exposure limit for noise over the course of an eight-hour workday is a weighted decibel average (dbA) of 90 dbA (although the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends 85 dbA). And for every 5 dbA increase in noise, OSHA recommends that you cut the exposure time in half.
The good news—in a sense—is that this means if you were exposed for the entirety of your eight-hour work shift to the sound of a heavy truck going by 45 feet away, your hearing would be OK. But if you had to listen to a jackhammer that was 45 feet away, you could only be exposed for four hours. And if you’re the one stuck with operating the jackhammer? Well, please send our condolences to your cochlear hair follicles.
Where Does This Hair—and Hearing—Loss Happen?
Once upon a time, most hearing loss occurred at work. Exposure to noisy jobs, such as factory work, construction, or road building, was the most frequent cause of hearing loss.
The good news is that with better health and safety regulations, working in a noisy industry is no longer a ticket to deafness, and lab safety in a noisy work environment is not impossible. If you follow the rules and wear good ear protection, those tiny hairs in your ears can survive.
Unfortunately, work isn’t presenting the only hazard to our ears these days. Personal MP3 players, concerts, noisy clubs, and well-equipped car stereo systems are now causing much of the damage to cochlear hair follicles. This means that the hearing loss trend is increasingly impacting younger people.
Lab Safety and Hearing Loss
Now, let’s get personal. You’re probably reading this blog because you work in a research lab, or are responsible for people who do.
As you know, mass spectrometer vacuum pumps, fume hood blowers, fridge and freezer compressors, and cooling fans all contribute to the noise level in a lab. By minimizing that aggregate noise level, you’ll actually be able to enhance lab safety for workers.
This is where dedicated lab furniture can help. Our mass spec IonBench, for example, cuts a guaranteed 15 dbA from vacuum pump noise, meaning that your lab techs can literally work all day without endangering their cochlear hair follicles.
Contact us today to learn more about how IonBench can promote lab safety—and hearing—of your entire team.