Study blows the whistle on referee hearing loss | Toronto Star.
Andrew Robb knows about referee’s ear.
A term used among sports officials to characterize temporary ringing in the ear caused by being in the gym or on the field, referee’s ear is common after a long day of officiating.
And a new study may have blown the whistle on it.
Published in January, the study shows referees are more likely to report symptoms of ringing in the ears and trouble hearing than people of the same age in the general population.
Robb, a volleyball official for 23 years and regional officials chair for the Ontario Volleyball Association, had never really thought about the potential hearing troubles he could encounter from long hours officiating.
It’s something that just comes with the territory, he said, and isn’t necessarily openly discussed among other officials.
“I do know if you’re in a gym for an excess of 10 to 12 hours and you go home and you’re sitting on the couch, you’re hearing the whistle,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it occurs.”
Robb said many of the more than 100 officials registered with his association, which handles officiating for elementary and secondary school volleyball, wear earplugs to combat the noise.
“I’m heading to Quebec for the men’s nationals this week and you’re talking 1,500 to 2,000 people in the crowd and the whistles going on,” he said. “It could definitely affect people.”
Robb added the study findings “could be an educational piece we could bring up to the membership.”
The study, “Sports Officials’ Hearing Status: Whistle Use as a Factor Contributing to Hearing Trouble,” was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.
Nathan Williams, co-author of the study with Gregory Flamme and a basketball referee in his spare time, thought the whistles he used during games were unnecessarily loud. His fellow officials even joked about their hearing loss.
At one high school tournament, he wore an instrument called a dosimeter that measured his noise exposure. The all-day tournament “maxed out the device,” Williams told the New York Times.
Volleyball, with its frequent blowing, probably poses the most risk, said Williams, now an audiologist at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Neb. People usually consider volume to be the main cause of hearing problems, but do not realize the effects of duration, he said.
With whistle volume measuring from 104 to 116 decibels at the ear, the safe daily noise dose is exceeded in just five to 90 seconds. The most commonly used whistle, the Fox 40 Classic, measured 106 decibels, allowing for just 48 seconds before damaging exposure, or 96 whistle blows of half a second each.
A starter’s pistol, with a decibel level of nearly 160 per shot, can damage the ear in one second, Flamme added.
He wonders whether the use of piercing whistles isn’t akin to “swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.”
“You don’t need 116 decibels to make everyone around you know that a particular play has stopped,” Flamme said.
Nearly half of the 321 sports officials surveyed for the study, all of whom were registered with the Michigan High School Athletic Association, reported ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, after officiating.
Such ringing often goes away, but with additional noise exposure it may become permanent. Ringing is also a sign of hearing loss, which typically goes undetected until it causes problems.
“Sports officiating cannot be ruled out as a promoter of early hearing impairment,” the study says.
Sporting events feature plenty of non-whistle noise, like roaring crowds, blaring music and amplified announcements. Such recreational noise adds to a person’s entire noise-exposure profile, Flamme said.
“Ears never get a break,” he told the Times.
Noise damage only accumulates and for a referee, a shrill whistle at ear level could push a person’s ears to a tipping point and cause or exacerbate hearing problems.
He suggests that new technologies could get the job done without putting the whistle-blower at risk.
With files from the New York Times