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Health problems caused by noise

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 13: Noise > Health problems caused by noise

Temporary hearing loss: You may lose some of your hearing while you are in a noisy place. After you leave, you may not hear well, and you may hear a constant ringing or buzzing noise (called tinnitus). If you stay away from loud noises, these problems should go away. But if you spend a lot of time in very loud places, the problems can get worse or become permanent.

Permanent hearing loss: If you work repeatedly around a lot of loud noise, temporary hearing problems may become permanent. Also, as we grow older, our hearing naturally grows weaker. You may lose your hearing more quickly if you work where there is loud noise every day. An extremely loud noise, such as an explosion, can damage your hearing right away and cause permanent hearing loss.

Other health problems: Loud noise can cause other health problems, including feeling tired, headaches, stress, miscarriage, high blood pressure, heart disease, muscle tension, stomach problems, and dizziness.

a woman trying to hear conversation at a table with several adults and children.
Tania’s hearing has been damaged by working in a noisy factory. Now it is hard for her to hear her daughter’s soft voice or to follow a conversation when there is noise in the background.
Organizing against hearing loss

Batam Island in Indonesia is a big export processing zone. Small and large factories make electronics for some of the world’s biggest brand names, from Panasonic to Philips.

But Batam is very different from most places where electronics are made because electronics workers in Batam can join unions. Electronics companies often say that unions hurt production, but Batam shows that when workers are paid decent wages and treated with respect and dignity, everybody wins. And these unions are not "yellow" unions, forced upon workers by the government or the employer. They are real, democratic, worker-led unions.

At first, Batam’s unions focused on improving wages and benefits. But soon they realized that health, especially how work affected health, was very important. The FSPMI (Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers, part of the global union federation IndustriALL) is one of the unions in Batam with a strong occupational safety and health division.

a worker speaking while wearing a cap that reads, "FSPMI."
Wages are important but our health is much more important. If we are sick, we cannot work and cannot earn our salaries.

The FSPMI started a campaign against noise when workers testing loudspeakers began to complain about hearing problems. The union asked labor and occupational health organizations to teach them how to measure and how to prevent hearing loss. They got an audiometer and learned to use it to measure hearing loss. They began testing workers during union meetings. Many workers showed signs of hearing loss, not just those who tested speakers. A few workers could hear very little.

With the audiometry test results in hand, FSPMI went to the factory owners. FSPMI said that the company needed to reduce noise and give workers earmuffs and earplugs. They also demanded that the companies start measuring hearing during the yearly checkups and before workers even started work. And for the workers who already had hearing loss, FSPMI demanded that the companies take responsibility and compensate injured workers.

The companies gave in and began a noise reduction and hearing loss prevention program. This happened due to workers’ activism but also because hearing loss is one of the only occupational diseases recognized by the Indonesian government.

How to tell if noise is too loud

Signs that the noise in your workplace is too loud and can damage your hearing include:

  • you have to raise your voice to talk to someone 2 arm lengths away.
  • you have problems hearing at the end of the workday, but you can hear better after resting away from the factory.
  • your ears ring at the end of the workday.

2 workers standing near machinery and doing the test described below.
If you cannot hear someone talking 2 arm lengths away, the noise is too loud.

You may not notice you are losing your hearing right away. Most people notice it when they begin to have difficulty hearing conversations clearly. By the time you notice hearing loss, the damage is usually permanent.

The boss should not wait for workers to begin going deaf before reducing noise in the factory. You can prove that the noise at work is dangerous by measuring the sound level and by testing workers’ hearing over time.

Measure noise

A sound level meter measures sound on a scale from very soft to very loud. The measure on the scale is called a "decibel." Working in areas with sound levels louder than 90 decibels will harm your hearing. Ask your union or your boss to have someone measure noise in your workplace.

Test workers’ hearing

An audiogram is a test that measures the ability to hear sounds that range from low to high and from soft to loud. If a worker’s hearing is tested every 6 months, the audiogram can show if her hearing is the same or getting worse. If you use earplugs all the time at work, the tests can show if the earplugs give enough protection. Hearing loss from noise is different than hearing loss from aging, and the test can prove if your hearing problem was caused by work.