Fans who head out to stadiums, arenas and other sports venues – as well as the workers in those venues and the officials in charge of refereeing the game – may be at risk of exposure to hazardous noise levels, according to two new studies published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH).

“These two papers describe a health hazard – high noise levels causing permanent hearing loss – that is prevalent but pretty much unappreciated in the world of sports,” said JOEH Editor in Chief Mark Nicas, Ph.D., CIH. “While severe traumatic injuries and degenerative brain disorders due to concussive blows are recognized as severe hazards among athletes, exposure to high noise likely affects far more individuals (spectators and referees), and the resulting permanent hearing loss decreases the quality of life of those affected.

The study “Occupational and Recreational Noise Exposure from Indoor Arena Hockey Games” examined noise exposures at arenas during collegiate and semi-professional hockey games. While none of the sampled workers were found to have been overexposed to noise based on OSHA criteria, 40 percent of workers and 33 percent of fans at one venue, as well as 57 percent of workers and 91 percent of fans at a second venue, were overexposed based on ACGIH noise exposure criteria, researchers determined.

“One plausible reason that personal sampling resulted in no overexposures to OSHA criteria and only roughly half of the workers were overexposed according to ACGIH criteria may have been due to the time of worker and fan noise exposure,” the study stated. “A typical hockey game lasts 3 hr, yet personal dosimetry is normalized over an 8-hr period, resulting in an assumed 5-hr period of no noise exposure.”

The study's findings may provide a foundation for noise control implementation in indoor sports arenas.

Blowing the Whistle on Noise Hazards

The second study, “Sports Officials’ Hearing Status: Whistle Use as a Factor Contributing to Hearing Trouble,” examined hearing loss among sports officials. Researchers conducted an online survey of 321 sports officials regarding their exposure to whistle noise and symptoms of hearing loss and tinnitus. Researchers also assessed the acoustic characteristics of commercially available whistles.

“The prevalence of self-reported tinnitus was greater among sports officials than among the male population in the Midwest. Approximately 50% of sports officials reported experiencing tinnitus after officiating. Approximately one-eighth (13%) of sports officials reported almost always experiencing tinnitus after officiating a game or match, and an additional 11% of sports officials reported post-officiating tinnitus more than once a week or more than once a month,” the study stated.

Findings from the survey and related study suggest that whistle contributes to hearing loss among sports officials, researchers said.

These studies suggest that noise controls are necessary in any workplace that poses noise hazards, be it a hockey arena or a more traditional manufacturing setting. Without such controls, workers may be at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

“We hope these papers will alert the sports world to explore preventive measures,” Nicas said.

JOEH is published jointly by ACGIH and the American Industrial Hygiene Association.