What Are the Dangers of Telephone Headsets?
By Fred Decker
For much of the 20th century, learning to write or type with a telephone handset wedged between your ear and shoulder was a fundamental business skill. The rise of inexpensive and higher-quality telephone headsets, beginning in the 1980s, made it possible for staff to spend longer periods on the phone with fewer ergonomic issues. Although they've largely been a positive development, telephone headsets themselves have a few potential hazards.
Like the rest of your body, your ears are populated with large numbers of bacteria. The vast majority are harmless or even beneficial, but a small percentage can cause health problems. The use of headsets can stimulate bacterial growth, perhaps by increasing temperature and humidity levels within the auditory canal. This could be problematic for staffers who are prone to ear infections and thus likelier to have populations of pathogenic bacteria in their ears. There's little overall correlation between headset use and ear infections, however, according to a 2002 study of customer service operators published in the "Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences."
A more direct danger is hearing loss. Prolonged exposure to high levels of volume can cause hearing loss, and headsets -- either telephone headsets or stereo headphones -- can be a factor. The sound level of normal conversational speech is approximately 60 decibels, and 85 db is generally considered to be the upper limit for safe listening. Over extended periods, even 85 db sounds can erode your hearing noticeably. Acoustic shock is the term researchers use for sudden sharp sounds, such as telephone line noise or the squeal of a fax machine, that briefly exceed safe levels. These can cause permanent hearing loss in seconds.
A third potential hazard is electromagnetic radiation from radio transmissions. This is a controversial subject, applying to wireless headsets as well as cellular phones themselves. The medical and scientific communities are split on the issue, with some researchers inferring a link between electromagnetic fields (EMF) and health but others questioning the correlation. The World Health Organization closely monitors research in the field, and suggests safe levels of exposure. Headsets using both Bluetooth and DECT wireless technology are considered safe by currently-accepted standards, though these may evolve as longer-term data becomes available.
The ergonomic benefits of headsets, especially for employees who spend all day on calls, are clear. Individual staff might experience discomfort with a specific style of headset, but that's easily accommodated by making an alternative headset available. The remaining risks can be minimized through intelligent use of the technology. Most manufacturers recommend the use of antibacterial wipes on headset earpieces and frequent replacement of their foam cushions. Setting mandatory volume limits and encouraging regular breaks reduces the likelihood of hearing loss. If your employees have health concerns about EMF, offer the option of a wired conventional or air-tube headset as an alternative.
- Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences: Ear Infection and Hearing Loss Amongst Headphone Users; R. Mazlan, et al.
- The Laryngoscope: Changes in the Microbial Flora of Airline Headset Devices After Their Use; Itzhak Brook, M.D., William E. Jackson, MSc
- TMCnet.com: Extensive Headset Usage Poses Greater Risk for Early Hearing Loss
- U.K. Health and Safety Executive: Acoustic Shock
- TMCnet.com: Sennheiser on Headsets & Hearing Damage -- What You Should Know
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.