What is Acoustic Shock?
Acoustic shock refers to the occurrence of an unexpected, high-pitched sound, shriek, or noise close to the ear.
People often describe an acoustic shock as feeling like they have been stabbed or electrocuted in the ear.
The length and volume of an audio shock can result in permanent damage to hearing or tinnitus, which can, in turn, impact upon the worker’s quality of life as well as their ability to do their job.
Acoustic Shock and Call Centre Workers
Call centre workers and telemarketers are thought to be most at risk of acoustic shock, due to the increased likelihood that they will be exposed to sudden, unexpected, loud sounds close to their ears.
The UK call centre industry has a workforce of between 650,000 million and 1 billion people, accounting for between 2 and 3% of the working population in the UK.
And, with more and more call centres and office environments utilising headsets, the occurrence of acoustic shock has increased. This is due to the fact that using a headset increases the risk of dangerous exposure to high-pitched sounds because, unlike a traditional phone, they cannot be dropped or quickly removed from the ear when the noise is heard.
However, it’s important to note that acoustic shock injury is not caused by faulty equipment, poor quality headsets or telephones, or telecommunications networks. Sudden, high-pitched sounds can happen at any time, no matter what type of equipment is being used.
Common causes of acoustic shock include:
- Electronic sounds from incorrectly-dialled fax machines
- Electric impulses
- Customers tapping into a handset or dropping it
- Malicious acts such as a customer screaming or blowing a whistle down the phone
- Faults on the line causing loud shrieking sounds
- IP network shrieks
- Power supply failures
- Interference from mobile devices
Constant exposure to loud volumes can also lead to an acoustic shock injury. As a general rule, if co-workers can hear your average listening volume, it could be too loud.
Acoustic shock causes a number of symptoms, both long term and short term. Short term effects include headaches, balance problems, nausea, and pain in the ear, head, and neck. Longer term symptoms can include hearing loss, tinnitus, and hypersensitivity to high-level sounds. If the symptoms persist, they can lead to a number of emotional responses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Avoiding Acoustic Shock
There are a number of steps that can be taken in order to reduce the risk of acoustic shock.
Firstly, certain equipment can be utilised in order to reduce the risk of acoustic shock. For example, headsets produced by major headset manufacturers now feature output limiters which have been developed to restrict the maximum volume levels transmitted down a telephone line. In line with Department of Trade and Industry specifications, the limiter ensures that any type of noise above 118 dB is not transmitted through the headset.
Although limiting sound output cannot completely prevent acoustic shock injuries because acoustic shrieks can also occur at low volumes, using the proper equipment can help to eliminate some of the risk.
As well as adapting headset technology, promoting acoustic shock awareness amongst employees is also key. All team members should understand what acoustic shock is, how and why it occurs, and the symptoms – after all, the better informed your employees are, the earlier the problems will be identified, and the quicker they will be treated.
In addition to this, contact centre supervisors need to be trained to recognise the significance of acoustic shock and the impact it can have on the health of employees. Alongside this, there should be a company policy in place to address any reported instances of acoustic shock.
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