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Extensive Headset Usage Poses Greater Risk for Early Hearing Loss


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February 03, 2006

Extensive Headset Usage Poses Greater Risk for Early Hearing Loss

By Susan J. Campbell, TMCnet Contributing Editor


Recent news for call and contact centers covers technological advances that can improve performance and as an end result, lower attrition for the agent base. These advances usually center on software and hardware integrations to improve efficiencies. An area that is starting to gather more attention, however, is that of hearing loss due to headsets in the workplace and through the use of portable music players like MP3 devices.
In all fairness, call and contact center management ensures that the equipment provided to their agents is ergonomically safe and does not pose potential damage to hearing. The greater risk is unfortunately often caused outside of the call or contact center. According to the Safety Council, agents can receive acoustic shock injury from noise that travels over telephone communication equipment due to electronic feedback, fax modems or even malicious callers who use devices such as whistles.
When acoustic shock injury leads to damage to the inner ear, hearing loss, headaches and nausea, dizziness and fatigue, work can literally be making these agents sick. The isolation of the call centers, strict maintenance for electronic equipment and use of new technologies such as sound shields to filter narrow band tones can all contribute to reducing the risk.
The problem with headset volume goes beyond that of the call center agent. The use of MP3 players has soared over the past few years and at the same time doctors are reporting noise-induced hearing loss that typically does not appear until middle age in younger and younger patients according to Jane Spencer, staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Portable music players are not new. Sony introduced the Walkman in the ‘80s, so why the concern now? The new available devices like the iPod can hold thousands of songs and batteries that can last substantially longer than older players. These features lead to extended listening times and hearing damage is directly related to the length of exposure, not just the volume.
Herein lays the greatest danger for hearing loss; if we set our headsets, whether for calling or listening to music, to a level that we feel is comfortable, we really have no idea if we are doing any damage. Sure, the manufacturers may recommend certain levels, but how can we really know? What’s worse, headset users are susceptible to a decreasing sensitivity to sound levels over time as the ears adapt to loud sounds resulting in the increasing of the volume to a dangerous level.
The UCLA Ergonomics division makes the following recommendations: normal conversation measures around 60 decibels and headphones kept at this level do not pose a risk of hearing loss; it is important to take hearing breaks and rest the ears; reduce ambient noise in your environment; and have your hearing tested during your annual physical.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that the safe exposure limit is 85 decibels for eight hours a day. (The equivalent would be listening to a typical vacuum cleaner run for eight hours.) Each three decibel volume increase reduces the safe exposure time by half.
At this point, there is little research supporting the implication that certain styles of headphones or headsets are more dangerous than others; however sound-minimizing headsets for music players are becoming more popular.
While the average headset user has the control over the length of time he or she listens to an MP3 or any other device, taking proper precautions is essential. Call and contact center agents can help prevent hearing loss by following simple guidelines like taking breaks and maintaining volume levels. Most importantly, both types of users must take it upon themselves to ensure that their hearing is being protected. Don’t assume it is a priority for anyone else.
Susan J. Campbell is a contributing editor for TMC and has also written for To see more of her articles, please visit Susan J. Campbell’s columnist page.

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