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Is It in My Head? The Who, Hearing Loss, and Headphones in the Workplace

Should hearing loss education be a part of an employer’s health and wellness program?

August 5, 2014
Related Topics: HR and Workforce Trends, Health and Wellness, Technology
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The Who August 2014

The original member of The Who (from left: Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Pete Townshend) performing in Chicago in 1975.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; picture by Jim Summaria.

The Who is one of my favorite bands. In high school, my friends and I started to dress like Mods for a little bit after watching the film adaptation of “Quadrophenia.” My favorite member of the group is undoubtedly Pete Townshend. When I played in bands during high school and college, I always tried to mimic him in some way, mostly by being an idiot and trashing my cheap guitar at the end of every show.

About a month ago, I realized I was starting on a path to sharing another similarity with Townshend: hearing loss.

Not only did Townshend play in a band that put on some of the loudest concerts ever, he spent a great deal of time in the studio, listening to track after track with headphones. (Side note: I saw The Who back in 2006 sans bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, of course, and even though they were in their 60s they blasted the roof of the place. They were so loud my body hurt.)

When I started at Workforce, I had never really worked in an office where I shared a space with nearly all of my colleagues. Between college semesters I worked in a warehouse driving a forklift. And after I graduated, I worked for the University of Illinois’ library, sorting through donations of books for any copies that could be added to the catalog.

That job was great because I had an office all to myself in the creepy basement, and hardly anyone ever came down to check on me. As such, I was free to turn up the speakers and listen to whatever music I wanted without having to wear headphones.

That changed when I landed my internship with this publication. When researching articles, I would listen to music on my iPod or through my computer on Spotify. Sometimes I would listen to music for five or six hours, basically giving my ears an unmerciful beating over the course of the workday. Pretty dumb idea, I’d say.

I don’t have any scientific research to back this up, but I’m willing to guess there are plenty of other millennials who listen to hours of music through headphones while working at their cubicles, too. I do have anecdotal information that supports that idea though. 

A former Workforce millennial colleague was introduced to me by my former boss on my first day as somebody who is “always listening to her headphones.” My current co-worker Frank Kalman, whose cube is across the aisle from mine, listens to music through his headphones, too, albeit definitely not nearly as often as I. And my roommate said he and his co-workers routinely swap iPods during the day to listen to new music while they work. What’s more, one of my best friends has tinnitus, a constant ringing or buzzing in the ears, because he used to blast his headphones constantly when he was in his early teens.

So last month, when I noticed my ears were starting to hurt a little, I forced myself to stop listening to music during the workday. From what my friend says about tinnitus, and from the Townshend interviews I’ve read, that is one health concern I definitely never want to deal with.

I’ve found some HR bloggers’ posts on headphones in the workplace while searching the Internet. But none address it as a health issue. Most argued that listening to headphones while working can lead to a disconnect between co-workers and stifle the chance for spontaneous collaboration to occur. Of course, wearing headphones in a warehouse would present huge safety risks for a variety of reasons.

Each blogger brings up great points against constant headphone use in the office. But my question is: Should employers include some kind of education about the damaging effects of headphones into their health and wellness programs?

According to the Stony Brook School of Medicine, most portable music devices produce 95 to 108 db of sound in the middle of their volume range, and 115 db toward the top end of the spectrum. At 95 db hearing damage can occur after four hours of listening to music, which seems easily preventable. However, at 108 db, damage could start occurring between 30 minutes to an hour. And at 115 db, damage could occur after only 15 minutes. 

Music has become hyperaccessible thanks to the digital revolution, and we’ve grown accustomed to seeing people, not just millennials, wearing headphones almost everywhere — and not only for listening to music but also talking on the phone. So, maybe it would be a good idea for employers to remind their employees every once in a while to limit their headphone use in the office. Perhaps send around a Townshend interview on the subject, along with a business case against long-term headphone use. I know I’d appreciate it.

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