Workers at call and dispatch centers may suffer health risks associated with high noise levels from their headsets. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed recommendations for prevention.

NIOSH research shows that workers at call and dispatch centers may face several hazards:

  • Acoustic trauma from a sudden spike in noise levels (e.g., from feedback into the headsets or a sudden change in volume),
  • Background noise from the incoming call, and
  • Background noise and other stressors in the workplace.

NIOSH has conducted several Health Hazard Evaluations (HHE) on workers who wear headsets for most of the workday, including FAA air traffic control specialists, emergency call center operators, and police station dispatchers. NIOSH has also conducted evaluations at several locations where medical transcriptionists work and at one fire department where emergency dispatchers work. Researchers interviewed workers, measured workers’ noise exposures, conducted area noise measurements, and measured sound levels from headsets using an artificial head fixture.

For the 911 fire department dispatchers, background noise in the work area did not exceed the NIOSH REL (The median value of overall full-shift noise levels was 60 dBA). However, noise from loud alarms, visitors, and other distractions did cause the dispatchers to increase the volume on their headsets to mask the noisy environment. Although an examination of actual 911 recordings played through the headsets produced peak levels as high as 100 dB SPL at maximum volume, a review of the dispatchers’ audiograms showed no evidence of noise-induced hearing loss. How¬ever, repeated and prolonged exposure to such levels can cause hearing loss and ringing in the ear.

Overall, the NIOSH evaluations did not reveal hearing loss problems among call center operators and dispatchers that can be directly attributed to noise exposures from their headsets or the surrounding environment. However, most workers interviewed reported various symptoms often associated with prolonged exposure to high noise levels. Symptoms included ringing in their ears, headaches, irritability, increased tension, and fatigue.
NIOSH recommends that workers and employers at call centers take the following steps to protect against hearing damage and other adverse health effects.

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