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  Home > Newsletter > Pilots, Noise Fatigue and Tinnitus: The Importance of Protecting Your Ears, March 2016

Pilots, Noise Fatigue and Tinnitus: The Importance of Protecting Your Ears

Noise fatigue is a huge problem for all pilots, flight instructors, and other aviation professionals. Flight after flight, pilots are subjected to a constant din from the engines, exhaust, propeller, fuselage and other areas. And unlike other noisy professions, pilots are generally subjected to the same noise frequency and intensity for extended periods of time.

Over time, this can lead to a chronic noise-related condition called tinnitus, which is commonly characterized by a constant ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is relatively common among pilots and can create problems with cockpit communications and sensitivity to noise.

According to a 2009 pilot tinnitus study, a total of 418 male and 42 female Swedish airline pilots completed a tinnitus questionnaire (response rate 79 percent). Forty percent of respondents reported experiencing tinnitus for more than 5 minutes during the past year, 18 percentreported constant or severe tinnitus, and 12 percent had at some time visited a doctor for problems related to tinnitus.

Unfortunately, there is very little one can do once tinnitus occurs, but there are preventative measures pilots can take to help prevent the onset of tinnitus and noise fatigue, and to help prevent long-term hearing loss.

Small aircraft pilots at higher risk

While noise fatigue is a health issue for all pilots, small aircraft, especially turboprop planes, are generally noisier and less insulated than large commercial jet aircraft. Even if you fly a larger aircraft with a quieter interior, you are probably exposed to ambient noise from the tarmac or in the cockpit with the cabin door open.

Most noise inside and around the aircraft are from four main areas:

  1. Noise from the exhaust stacks (especially short stacks) usually located directly beneath the cabin, and the subsequent airflow pushing up against the bottom of the fuselage;
  2. The propeller and airflow off the propeller against the windshield;
  3. Airflow through vents, leaks around doors and turbulence throughout the fuselage;
  4. Engine noise, especially the vibration of air-cooled engines.

The decibel (dB) is the unit used to measure sound intensity. To give you an idea of the average decibel level of some everyday sounds, consider the following:

  • A whisper – 30 dB
  • A quiet room – 40 dB
  • Normal conversation – 60 dB
  • Busy traffic – 70 dB
  • Gas lawn mower – 106 dB
  • Jackhammer – 130 dB
  • Jet engine – 140 dB

Keep in mind that permanent hearing damage can occur from sounds louder than 85 dB, physical pain occurs at around 125 dB, and an eardrum may burst at 140 dB. The Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) states that the maximum level of “safe” exposure to loud sounds is 90 dB for up to eight hours, or 100 dB for up to two hours. OSHA requires that workers exposed to noise levels higher than 85 dB use hearing protection equipment.

Study on aircraft noise levels

In 2010, an Occupational Health & Safety study entitled, “Interior Sound Levels in General Aviation Aircraft,” sought to determine if prolonged exposure to interior aircraft noise is a health hazard for pilots.

For the study, sound samples were taken in a Cessna 172 and a Piper PA-44 Seminole — two planes with different airframes. While the planes were in flight, two sound-level meters took readings from within an occupant’s headset, as well as ambient noise from the cabin, to get an idea of true noise levels without any hearing protection.

To simulate a “worst flying day scenario,” the researchers tested for eight-hour exposure, and created an eight-hour time weighted average from the sound sample readings. The time-weighted average for all of the aircraft cabin measurements came in at 86.26 dBA. The study’s data reinforced that pilots are indeed exposed to sound levels higher than OSHA standards. The study also determined that the use of a headset is adequate hearing protection for a projected eight-hour period. To get an idea of the decibel level inside your aircraft, buy a decibel meter at an electronics store and (safely) take readings during the climb, cruise and descent. Keep in mind the dB level inside your headphones should be lower than the ambient, unprotected noise level in the cockpit and cabin. Read the full study.

Tips for protecting your ears

If the ambient noise level inside your cockpit reaches 90 dBA, you should be using hearing protection equipment. A good set of headsets are essential, especially if in-cockpit noise levels exceed OSHA exposure limits. Active noise reduction headsets are recommended because they improve signal-to-noise ratios and enhance sound quality. Another benefit of a quality headset is that they reduce high-frequency background noise, making speech signals clearer and easier to understand. For maximum protection, combine a good set of active noise reduction headsets with earplugs.

Another good tip is to limit your exposure to loud activities before flying, such as mowing the lawn or listening to loud music.

If you have symptoms of hearing loss

Some symptoms of hearing loss include difficulty understanding what people are saying, listening to TV and music at loud levels and avoiding social interactions because hearing is frustrating. Prolonged exposure to loud noises and unchecked hearing damage can also cause irritability, lack of focus, high blood pressure, increased stress levels, insomnia and high or abnormal heart rate.

If you suspect you are suffering from hearing loss and its side effects, see your doctor and/or get checked by a qualified otolaryngologist or audiologist to find out the extent of the hearing damage, if any, and what you can do to treat it.

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