There are many types of fatigue – muscle fatigue, mental fatigue and chronic fatigue. There is also listener fatigue and it is experienced by professionals who are constantly exposed to noise. Symptoms of listener fatigue can include yes, fatigue (being tired), bodily discomfort and pain as well as a loss of sensitivity (inability to tolerate an ordinary noise level) and it can be manifested through rudeness, perception of laziness, and apathy.
The sources may surprise you.
A recent study1 discovered that 75 percent of female elementary school teachers suffer from listener fatigue. The study findings were surprising in many ways. It found the school teachers rate of listener fatigue was “considerably higher” than the general population’s rate of 42 percent. The study also found that listener fatigue in elementary school teachers caused:
- Difficulty understanding speech: 46 percent
- Hypersensitive to sound: 39 percent
The challenge in addressing this type of listener fatigue is that young children must be listened to and attended to. Typical noise reduction strategies, such as those used to reduce industrial noise, cannot be used in elementary school settings.
The same study investigated listener fatigue in women who work in labor and delivery2 hospital units. It found that they too suffer high levels of listener fatigue. In fact, more than 85 percent of the women working in labor and delivery were diagnosed with a “fairly mild hearing disorder.” The study found that high noise levels in the workplace contributed to the listener fatigue:
- Sound levels exceeded the safe decibel level of 80 dBA for noise in 45 percent of the shifts
- Sound levels exceeded 85 dBA in 5 percent of the shifts
- Sound levels greater than 115 dBA were measured while women were in active labor
To give those levels context2, 80 dBA is the level of noise of an alarm clock, 85 dBA is the level of noise of a snow blower and 115 dBA is the same level of noise as an emergency vehicle siren.
Other studies3 have found that the level to which a person suffers auditory fatigue is “directly proportional” to the “intensity and duration” of the noise. However, given the nature of elementary school children, a solution to the problem will require innovative steps to create a calmer, less noisy environment in classrooms. A labor and delivery unit poses similar challenges in that the noise levels cannot be reduced by the same means that control industrial or occupational noise. Hospitals will need to take innovative steps to protect the hearing of staff and try to prevent auditory fatigue before it occurs.
In both schools and hospitals, controlling noise levels in the workplace is important to protect hearing as well as general health. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health4 (NIOSH) says that loud noise in the workplace is associated with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Wearing protective devices in the ears, or making shift accommodations may help to reduce long term hearing loss and protect the overall health of these important professionals.