How often do we consider a medical professional to be at risk for occupational hearing loss? Research shows dental professionals are exposed to noise levels as high as 102 dBA, a loudness level far higher than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets as their permissible exposure limit (PEL) (Myers et al., 2016). So why are these professionals who work in the medical field unaware of the dangers their equipment poses to their hearing? Furthermore, why aren’t all dentists utilizing hearing protection on a daily basis?
A little bit of research unveiled a few concerning facts about healthy hearing in the dental profession. Dental equipment such as high-speed suction, compressors, grinders, and ultrasonic cleaners often exceeds the recommended action level set forth by OSHA. According to Myers et al. (2016), dental equipment noise compounded with the sterile, hard, reverberant surfaces in an office regularly produces decibel levels as high as 96.5 dB.
While attending the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC), I had the luxury of having access to our dental program. I sat down with the dental school’s associate dean, a dental student, and a few other professionals to discuss the dangers their dental students were facing. Through our conversations, I learned the majority of students and faculty were unaware of the dangerous levels of noise they are exposed to daily. Most importantly, I learned why dental professionals may be hesitant to utilize hearing protection. Dentists utilize their auditory abilities daily for a very important factor; they must be able to hear the speed of their drill clearly, as the speed greatly impacts the rate at which the drill wears away at a tooth. For this reason, hearing protection must be chosen with care, and trialed before use with patients to ensure vital sounds are audible.
I teamed up with third-year dental class president, Lacey Galliano, to test hearing protection devices in the dental lab. We ordered custom musicians plugs with 9, 15, and 26 dB filters. Lacey and I went in to the dental lab and listened to a high-speed dental drill through each filter. We found the 26 dB filter to be far too limiting and eliminated it as an option. When using the 15 dB filter the speed of the hand drill could be heard, but significant listening effort was noted in just the first minute or so of use. The 9 dB filter allowed for easy listening and a clear difference between drill speeds, making it an easy first choice.
Through local contacts, 54 sets of musicians plugs were donated to third-year dental students. We composed a presentation consisting of a quick anatomy lesson of the auditory system, how noise exposure affects the auditory system, an overview of dB and dB levels, the effects of dental equipment on the auditory system, current research regarding dental hearing safety, and how to protect one’s hearing in the dental office. Dental professionals found a few safety tips I learned through my research to be especially helpful. Maintaining good posture keeps a healthy distance between one’s ears and the dental drill, while also reducing back pain, another ailment many dental professionals face. When discussing healthy hearing with students, it was suggested that each student obtain a baseline hearing evaluation so they could monitor their hearing annually. In addition to ordering hearing protection devices, a line by Dangerous Decibels was also shared: “walk away, turn it down, protect your ears.”
Following the presentation, impressions were taken for each student, and I ordered musicians plugs. Upon delivery, I demonstrated proper insertion, confirmed they could insert the devices independently, and spent some time ensuring each student’s hearing protection fit properly.
Throughout this project, I learned just how far a little research and a conversation with a few professionals can go. By collaborating with others, I was able to put myself into a dentist’s (probably orthopedic) shoes to find the best solution for their healthy hearing. Moving forward, I encourage us all to remember to listen to our patients and find exactly how it is they are looking to improve their hearing habits!
Ola Luba is a fourth-year Doctor of Audiology student at the University of Louisiana Health Science Center (LSUHSC). She is currently completing her fourth-year at Bridgewater Balance and Hearing in Knoxville, TN. Ola is active in the SAA at the national level and is the immediate past president of LSUHSC’s SAA chapter. Her audiology interests include pediatrics, vestibular, and volunteering to share her audiologic knowledge at community outreach events.
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