Noise and hearing

The looms have made McDermott deaf. Well not deaf exactly, but they have changed sound, damaged sound, so that sometimes spoken words seem to come from the bottom of a well, and others have halos around them, gauzy halos that slur sound.

This passage, from Anita Shreve’s novel "Sea Glass” , which I finished recently, is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the impact of noise induced hearing loss on an individual.  It was the first of her books that I’ve read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in and around the cotton mills in New England in the USA in the 1930s, before and during a bitter strike which takes place when the bosses make a vicious cut to workers’ wages.

In the novel, McDermott is a loom fixer in a mill. He has been exposed to high levels of noise for all his relatively short working life. And it is this exposure that has caused him to become deaf. But, as come across in the passage, noise induced hearing loss doesn’t just make it more difficult to hear, it distorts the sound making it difficult to understand speech and spoiling the enjoyment of music and other activities that involve listening

File:Spinning room in indian orchard cotton mill.jpg

A ring spinning mill in The USA in 1916 (picture source Wikimedia commons)

The development of noise induced hearing loss follows a characteristic pattern, although the severity will be dependent upon a number of factors including the intensity of the noise experienced, the duration of exposure, the pattern of exposure, individual susceptibility and many other complex considerations.  Noise-induced hearing impairment occurs predominantly in the high-frequency range of 3 to 6 kHz (3,000 to 4,000 Hz), the effect being greatest at 4 kHz. Frequencies above this range are less affected resulting in a characteristic dip in audiogram charts created during hearing tests usually known as the “4 Khz dip”.

An audiogram for a worker who is starting to suffer from noise induced hearing loss. The “4 kHz dip” is clearly identifiable (Source: American Academy of Family Physicians website)

When a worker first starts to suffer from noise induced hearing loss difficulties are experienced during conversation, and speech on the TV or radio begins to become indistinct.  Some higher frequency domestic sounds, for example a clock ticking, may also become difficult to hear.  As hearing deterioration progresses, further difficulties are experienced in conversation – even in face-to-face situations, speech and music on the television and radio begins to sound even more muffled, and it may not be possible to hear many ordinary domestic sounds.  The ability to determine the direction from which a sound comes is also affected.  Even small values of hearing impairment  may have an effect on the understanding of speech.

It’s difficult for someone with normal hearing to appreciate how the world sounds to someone who has been made deaf by exposure to noise. The UK Health and Safety Executive have an audio demonstration that tries to get this across here.

Once noise induced hearing loss has occurred the damage is permanent, and cannot be reversed.  All that can be done is to take measures to prevent hearing deteriorating further once the  hearing loss has been detected.  So the important thing is to control exposure to prevent hearing damage occurring.

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2 thoughts on “Noise and hearing

  1. I never worked in a cotton spinning mill. Most were on the way to being closed when I came to Bolton in 1974. However in the late 60s I worked during the summer holidays in the bottling plant at a brewery in Sheffield. I was always amazed at how easily the women could communicate above the noise over quite long distances by lip reading.

    • My grandmother worked for many years in the mills. She could lip read so you had to be careful what you said from the other side of the room!

      My mother worked in mills, in the office rather than in the shed, but had to walk through the shed giving out wages and to see workers. She wears hearing aides today.

      Mill workers also used to communicate by “memawing” – using exaggerated lip movements to make lip reading from across the shed easier and by making hand gestures. I picked up the habit and “talk with my hands”

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