One of the most common causes of hearing loss is exposure to loud noise. This exposure can occur during leisure time, like at a concert or while doing yard work. Hazardous noise exposure also often occurs on the job—there are many professions that cause people to be exposed to dangerous levels of noise for too long. The military is one of those industries that can expose employees to noise that leads to hearing loss. In fact, the US Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that more than 60,000 military members are on disability for hearing loss and tinnitus just from military efforts of the last two decades. Ultimately, hearing loss among service members is common.
Loud noises from equipment like firearms and heavy machinery can cause sustained hearing loss. The American Speech-Language Association notes that exposure to noise louder that 140 decibels (dB) can permanently damage hearing, and that almost all firearms create noise louder than that threshold. People who are not wearing proper hearing protection can suffer severe hearing loss from just one shot.
Additionally, off-duty service members are still at risk of hazardous noise. Dr. Theresa Schulz, the chief of the DoD Hearing Center of Excellence, noted that “a significant amount of [noise] exposure occurs off-duty.”
Hearing loss in the military: Is it increasing?
While hearing loss is quite prevalent among military members, there is some good news—in March, the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence reported that noise-induced hearing loss is declining among active-duty service members. The percent of service members with hearing impairment decreased from 21% in 2012 to 15% in 2018. Additionally, the percent of civilians enrolled in hearing conservation programs decreased from 51% to 40% in the same time frame.
Each military service offers a hearing conservation program to preserve the hearing of its members. Dr. Schulz stated that the hearing program “benefits all service members, regardless of occupation or specialty, because noise is the most prevalent hazardous exposure faced by our service members on duty.” She also noted that “[a] primary goal of program is to bring visibility to an invisible but preventable injury – noise-induced hearing loss.”
The military has not always had a good track record for preventing hearing loss. Most notably, hundreds of lawsuits were filed in the last few years against 3M, which acted as a government contractor and designed earplugs for military members for over a decade. The earplugs were defective and allowed for dangerous levels of noise, which resulted in hearing loss and tinnitus for hundreds, if not thousands, of service members.
The hazards of military service make the risk of hearing loss significantly higher than in the general population. It’s encouraging to see that the military leaders are taking decisive steps against hearing loss and supporting the service members who have lost their hearing while serving their country.