Whistle blowers, beware: You may be risking your hearing

Factory workers, soldiers, miners, and bartenders are among those whose jobs often put them at risk of hearing loss. Now you can add sports referees to the list of potentially ear-unfriendly occupations.

So report two audiologists, Gregory Flamme and Nathan Williams, in a study published last month in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene and also written about in the February 26 New York Times.

Williams developed a personal concern about the subject because during his years as a graduate student in audiology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo he worked part-time as a basketball referee. Having observed that the whistles that he and other refs used in officiating games seemed unnecessarily loud, he donned a dosimeter during an all-day high school tournament. The test confirmed his concerns, as, he told the Times, the sound levels “maxed out” the dosimeter.

Williams, along with Flamme, one of his professors at Western Michigan, decided to investigate further. They found that the sound of whistles used by referees ranges from 104 to 116 dB at the ear of the user. That means that it would take only 90 seconds of blowing the softer whistle for a ref to reach the maximum acceptable time of unprotected exposure for a full day. With the 116-dB whistle, it would take just 5 seconds to reach the safe daily noise dose. The most commonly used whistle, the Fox 40 Classic, measured 106 dB, allowing for just 48 seconds before damaging exposure, or 96 whistle blows of half a second each.

Williams, now an audiologist at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, and Flamme also conducted an online survey of 321 sports officials in Michigan regarding their exposure to whistle noise and symptoms of hearing loss and tinnitus. They found that nearly half the respondents reported tinnitus after officiating. They also found that male referees had a greater prevalence of self-reported hearing trouble and tinnitus than was observed among men of the same age in the general population of the Midwest.

They concluded that their findings “suggest that whistle use may contribute to hearing loss among sports officials.”

1 Comment

  1. I am a retired international volleyball referee. I have tinnitus and it may have
    come from my whistle in the gymnasiums. I have refereed in front of 25,000
    spectators with their own whistles (mouth), drum, bugles and the like to the point
    where I can NOT hear the whistle from the other referee that is 30 meters away.
    My question is: Can a company manufacture an ear plug that will filter the decibels
    and frequency of the whistle but still allow conversation to be heard? Do you have any suggestions on how to proceed for our international referees?

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