January 22, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Our wives work as hair stylists in a relatively small town in California’s Central Valley. We are all very close, went to the same high school, got married right after graduation, the girls attended beauty college together and have worked for more than 15 years in the cosmetology field,” a very touching e-mail from Chris and Daniel began.
“We are very much afraid that these two wonderful ladies are losing their hearing because of occupational noise. If you’ve spent any amount of time in a beauty salon, then you know these are extremely noisy places. Now when we all get together, especially at a restaurant or some place where there is a lot of conversation, it seems that we have to speak extra clearly and at a much higher volume level in order for them to understand us. Even at home, they want the TV volume higher than normal, and we often need to repeat ourselves.
“We love our wives, and when we discuss this with them, they just say that it is ‘selective’ hearing loss. ‘We are just not paying attention, and you two guys are overreacting,’ they say. But we aren’t and are really worried. Is hearing loss a common problem for people who work in hair salons? Can anything be done to lower the noise level? No one wants to file a workers’ compensation case, but could we, if necessary? Or are we two overly-concerned husbands?” they asked.
Working in a beauty salon is a known risk to hearing
When we ran our readers’ situation by one of the nation’s leading experts in the area of occupational noise, Dr. Tom Thunder, the Chicago-based audiologist/acoustic engineer did not hesitate to “clear” my readers.
“Your readers are not overreacting. As a general statement, where someone who has been working in the cosmetology field seems to be having difficulty understanding normal speech, keeps asking you to repeat yourself, or at times seem unaware of certain sounds or things around them, this is often a sign of noise-based hearing loss, very common in the hair-care field and can be traceable, primarily, to one source.
“And scary part is that millions of Americans, for years, have unknowingly placed their hearing at risk every day, and yet might never have even gone into a hair salon. So, what’s to blame? It’s the majority of consumer and professional hair blowers sold in North America which typically generate noise levels from 85 to 95 decibels.”
Why these numbers matter
“That’s the noise level of a vacuum cleaner, standing on a busy subway station, using a gasoline powered lawnmower, a loud leaf blower, weed whacker or being within a few inches of a food blender.
“When we are repeatedly in an environment where the noise level is over 85 decibels, there is a significant risk of serious damage to your hearing. If you work, let’s say in a noisy bar or restaurant, and must shout to your co-workers in order to be heard, you’re looking at around 85 decibels, and this is dangerous.
“To help understand these numbers, a quiet room is 40 decibels. Normal speech is around 65. Every 10-decibel increase doubles the noise. If you are a hairdresser working with the typically loud hair dryer, in the generally noisy environment of a salon, one of life’s greatest gifts – the wonderful ability to hear – is being ever so slowly taken away.
“The people who work in these salons need acoustically safer equipment. A hair blower in the 70-decibel or lower level would have a real impact on preservation of hearing,” he maintains.
How long does it take before hearing damage occurs?
“When we do an audiogram and find a high-frequency loss at around 4,000 hertz – roughly a birdcall frequency – this shows up as a ‘notch’ in our results and is consistent with damage caused by noise exposure,” Thunder explains.
“We know that hair dryers over 85 decibels present a significant risk of hearing impairment and that the hair dryer in a beauty salon is the major source of noise exposure. It takes 5 to 10 years before one would start to see a permanent notch effect occur in that person’s audiogram. That’s all it takes – just 5 to 10 years working as a hair stylist, in the typically noisy beauty salon, to cause significant and permanent hearing loss.
“Interestingly, dentists are also at risk of hearing loss, yet no one would consider a dental office as a noisy place to work. But they also suffer noise-induced hearing loss at the frequency of speech, caused by being around high-frequency drills,” he points out.
“Your readers need to get their wives to meet with an licensed audiologist – not a hearing aid dealer – and establish their current hearing levels. In fact, anyone considering a career in cosmetology or another high-noise environment occupation should have this test performed. Costs range from $70 to $120 and are generally covered by health insurance. This establishes a baseline and would be extremely helpful in workers’ compensation or personal injury cases,” Thunder stated.
But is there anything which can be done today, right now? Is there a quiet hair blower on the market?
Yes, there is, and that’s our story for next week.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.