Hearing Safety For Skydivers: Itís A Thing
What Skydivers Donít Know About The Holes in the Sides of Their Heads
There are plenty of things in this life that you donít want to hear. I know.
Your girlfriend telling you sheís leaving you for her co-worker who buys roses instead of jump tickets. The wind tunnel peanut gallery tittering at your epic layout biff. The dude at the bonfire yammering on about his siiiiiick proxy flight in his brand-new sponsored Air Mattress 4.
But what if you never got to hear anything at all anymore? And what if it was your fault?
If you want to keep the good sounds coming in to your skyward-tilting brain, youíd better take some responsibility. There are probably some things you donít know about the holes alongside your head, after all.
1. Hearing loss is forever.
Once youíve damaged the lining of your inner ears, thereís nothing that can be done to bring it back. Thereís no medication to bring your old ears back -- nor is there a surgery that sets things straight.
Hearing loss thatís attributable to skydiving happens because of damage to the cilia of the inner ear. (Cilia are the tiny, hair-like cells that vibrate with the pressure of sound waves and tell the brain about it.) Too much exposure to those waves wears them right out. Once they canít wiggle anymore, itís over. They donít bounce back.
2. You might go crazy, too.
Alongside general hearing loss, you might get a bonus symptom: tinnitus. If the cilia are bent or broken due to excessive sound exposure, they can dribble out random electrical impulses to your brain, causing you to hear sound where none exists. Basically, this results in a constant ring/roar/buzz/hiss/squeal that lives inside your head 24/7. If that sounds like hell, youíre absolutely right.
3. Itís louder up there than you think.
Decibel levels are not linear; theyíre logarithmic. Linear measures are measured with addition and subtraction (for example: four miles is twice as long as two miles). Logarithmic measures ratchet up by factors of ten. This means that every increase of 10 on the decibel scale represents a 10-fold increase in the intensity of the sound it measures. Noise that clocks in at 20dB is 10 times louder than a sound of 10dB. 30dB? 100 times louder...so look differently at decibel measures than you do at the numbers in your bank account.
The noise weíre subjected to on the ride up hovers over 90dB -- which government standards decree is only healthy for around seven and a half minutes. Weíre in the tin can for 20-30. You do the math.
4. Monotony is worse than variety.
I used to produce music videos for a living (which is less fun than youíd think, but thatís another, boozy story). The production team was always required to provide the crew and talent with earplugs; if the production assistant forgot them, it was crucifixion time. Thatís because OSHA, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, enforces requirements limiting workersí exposure to a time-weighted average noise level of anything over 85 dB.
As skydivers, we donít have to listen to that same damn godawful excuse for a song over and over (thank god), but weíre actually exposed to something thatís actually worse for our health than boy bands: level monotony. A long exposure to a same-pitch drone -- such as engine noise -- is more damaging than sounds that change in pitch, like loud music. The droning sound wears away at the cilia with the same sound waves, like waves crashing on the same part of a beach over and over in the same way.
5. You can plug your holes.
Many skydivers wear earplugs from gear-up to landing. Some take them out for freefall; others take them out for the canopy ride. Figure out what works for you and allows you to reliably receive information from your audible. It takes some discipline (or self-tricksiness) to remember, but it will help you in the long run. Try keeping a pair taped to your altimeter to help you remember to put them in.
Helmets with padding over the ears are less effective than earplugs, but they can still help.
6. You donít need expensive earplugs to skydive.
The drugstore cheapies will do. When you place them, make sure theyíre snug -- but that you can still feel them move around when you slide your jaw around (so you can equalize pressure, if necessary).
7. You can still pretend you canít hear.
When Siiiiick Wingsuit Proxy Guy looks at you, ever hopeful for adulation, you can still give him back a confused ďhuh?Ē and wander off.
Better yet: take your earplugs to the bonfire.
I'm the only one at my dz that wears them and routinely catch flak for it. The problem that I notice is experienced jumpers telling new jumpers that ear plugs aren't necessary. This is not only irresponsible, it's dangerous as well. I recommend to all of my students that they need to wear ear plugs from the start but invariably an experienced jumper will chime in with "I've been jumping for years without them..." or "you won't be able to hear your audible (when they get one)" (which is complete BS), etc. It seems to be mostly pride or being too *cool* that keeps skydivers from wearing ear plugs but this is one skydiver that will choose to wear them every jump.
I can speak on authority on this. My hearing has been wavering/going over the past couple of years (I'm 36 years young), admittedly jumping wasn't the biggest cause. My hearing really took a kick in the nuts during my time in the military, ever since then its been gradually getting worse. It's now got to the point were i have to wear hearing aids, i no longer hear birds singing. My phone can ring in my pocket and i only know due to the vibration, i have 24/7 tinnitus to really give me an added kick in the nuts. If you remember partying when you were younger and your ears would ring on your way home, but by morning it would be gone again? Well tinnitus is like that, always there. I haven't experienced 100% quietness in 12years, i know longer remember what it's like.
Psychologically, it's horrendous. You miss conversations, my wife is amazing and has learned to cope with my often random answers. She might ask what do i want for dinner? I'll think she's asked me the time, 'yes, is 1pm', and she knows I've guessed what she's asked. You can be part of a group conversation, all of a sudden people will start laughing. You've missed the punch line, but because your not laughing people look at you. You then think you're the butt of the joke, and cue an uncalled for response or a feeling of expulsion as you missed the punchline and no longer feel part of the joke.
Trust me, you don't want to end up loosing your hearing. Wear ear plugs, even you don't think it's loud, it is. I would give my left leg to have my once perfect hearing back, and i know in a few years my hearing will degrade to such an extent that it's possible i won't hear anything at all.
Very good article! I have been skydiving for 36 years and working in high-noise environments for most of that time as well, and I now wear hearing protection on all my jumps. but I didn't start wearing hearing protection until it was too late... Now it is difficult to understand what people are saying and I have a constant ringing squeal in my head that is loud enough to drown out the sound of the motor running in my car. One thing that the author didn't mention is that freefall (even with a full-face helmet) is well over 100 decibels. In order to protect what hearing I have left I wear earplugs with a string between them so I can pull them out after my canopy opens. These cost about $0.25 a set when you buy them in bulk. Trust me, it is well worth it. I tell all my students to wear hearing protection as soon as they are off the radio, and to keep wearing it for their skydiving career.
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