Background noise is such a common factor in our lives that we often fail to notice it. We’re surrounded by it all the time, as even our refrigerators hum and our alarm clocks tick. It’s possible to get so used to noise that we may find ourselves more inclined to notice its absence than its presence. Native city dwellers, for instance, often complain of insomnia when visiting the countryside, lamenting that it’s just too quiet. The world wasn’t always this loud, but we’ve now filled it with so much noise that we frequently experience noise-induced hearing loss. It’s quite interesting to look at the history of how the world turned up the volume.

The First Noise Restrictions

The Greeks enacted the first known noise ordinance in the 6th century BCE. Its target was potters and tinsmiths, who it forced to work outside the city walls so as not to disturb residents. Roosters, too, found themselves banished to the outer realm with the potters and tinsmiths. While these men worked trades that caused unpleasant noises during the day, other citizens of the world disturbed the peace at night. To prevent this, Julius Caesar decreed that no wagons or carriages could use the street after sunset.

Clearly, humans quickly discovered noise’s ability to annoy and disrupt. Far more surprising is how quickly we discovered the damage noise can do. It was Hippocrates who discovered that tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, resulted from prolonged exposure to noise.

The Industrial Revolution and Beyond

Although human activities always created some noise, things stayed relatively quiet until the Industrial Revolution. In 1770, however, steam trains began roaring across the American countryside, carrying with them perhaps the most significant noise increase in history. As we know, the noise didn’t stop there. Steam power spread to other machines and equipment, allowing us to accomplish more with less manpower but creating more noise in the process.

We eventually left steam behind, but we carried noise into the future with us. In the 1950’s, humans made another huge jump in noise pollution with the creation of the jet plane. Those living near airports quickly found themselves dealing with sleep interruptions, fatigue, and stress. Workers who spent too much time around these jets frequently complained of tinnitus and hearing loss, but no one seemed to hear them over the din created by these amazing flying machines.

Humans not only spent some time ignoring the potential damage of noise but seemed to embrace it. This was evident in Panama when American troops essentially Rickrolled Noriega, repeatedly playing Rick Astley’s pop hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” in an attempt to drive him from his sanctuary. Soldiers also used noise as an asset during both World Wars, tracking hidden warships by listening for the noises they made. Unfortunately, most of these clever soldiers left the war with tinnitus and some degree of hearing loss thanks to their exposure to mortars, gunfire and other loud noises.

Hearing Health Milestones

Though Hippocrates was the first to link noise and hearing loss, he wasn’t the last. It’s taken a series of discoveries and observations to lead us to OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) 1971 recognition of noise as a dangerous substance and development of a hearing conservation program.

One was a doctor linking a coppersmith’s hearing loss to his work in the 1700’s. Another milestone occurred in the 1800’s, when a doctor determined a blacksmith had gone deaf after spending years listening to the noise created by iron repeatedly striking iron.

The year 1886 saw the first group study of noise-induced hearing loss. This study once again linked noise exposure to hearing problems and resulted in the term “boilermaker’s ear.” It wasn’t until 1879, however, that Alexander Graham Bell invented the first audiometer, giving doctors a useful tool with which to better evaluate hearing loss. With it, physicians could accurately and objectively measure hearing.

The Advancement of Hearing Protection

Sometimes stubborn and slow to learn, the human animal continued to make and expose itself to noise for some time before taking hearing protection seriously. We built faster and more complex machines to use in manufacturing plants and workers continued to suffer from noise exposure and hearing loss, despite our knowledge that the two were related. In 1890, some started to take the issue more seriously, forming the first Society for the Suppression of Noise in London. It’s of note, however, that this society was more concerned with railing against the newly-invented and quite annoying car horn than it was protecting the rights of workers. Still, it was a start.

Time marched on and during the 1950’s, some lucky mining and steel workers received hearing protection and regular hearing tests from their employers. Industrial sites began installing audiometric devices at their job sites to measure the amount of noise, in part thanks to OSHA’s concern over employee hearing issues. Further protection came with the 1989 Noise at Work Regulations, which set standards for assessing noise, screening workers and providing protection from hearing loss. During the 1990’s, computers made compliance and protection easier by allowing for more accurate electronic audiometers and the software necessary to quickly analyze the information they provide.

Where We Are Today

In the 21st century, hearing conservation is now taken quite seriously. Employers exhibit genuine concern for the protection and conservation of their employee’s hearing, and many successful programs have been and continue to be implemented to reduce instances of noise-induced hearing loss. The ultimate goal is, of course, to eliminate this preventable problem altogether.

We at Workplace Medical Corporation (WMC) have evolved along with the industry and are proud to be a part of saving hearing. Our audiometric technicians are mobile and highly trained in order to provide timely and accurate hearing information and screenings to you and your workers. They also stand ready to provide other helpful services, including worker education, noise surveys, dosimetry and hearing program evaluations. They can even provide your workers with comfortable, customized protection solutions to reduce or completely eliminate tinnitus and hearing loss.

Though we already provide a wide array of services, we’re not slowing down. We continue to evolve, learn, grow and rededicate ourselves to protecting the hearing health of your employees. Contact us today to learn more. We would love to hear how we can help you.