Hand hygiene and hearing loss. Avoiding the tradeoff

Like most people, I was never a fan of the old-fashioned hand dryers in public bathrooms. Unless you had 10 minutes to stand around, the machines never got your hands dry. I used paper towels whenever they were offered.

In recent years more powerful hand dryers have been popping up and now fewer bathrooms offer paper towels.


Of the new dryers, my personal favorite is the Dyson airblade. It’s powerful, quiet and has a clever design.


But I’m not so fond of the Excel Xlerator. Sure it’s powerful, but it’s also incredibly noisy. I have sensitive ears, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that when I’m exposed to a loud sound I cover my ears with my hands. But of course if I’m drying my hands I can’t use them to protect from the noise.

The Xlerator is loud enough that I suspect it’s a threat to hearing. At the very least it’s so annoying that I bet some people skip hand washing to avoid using it. My gym has one of these beasts and after being bothered by it for a while I decided to research the noise level.

I found a paper on the subject by Jeffrey Fullerton and Gladys Unger from the acoustical consulting firm Acentech. Sure enough, the Xlerator is a real noisemaker. Apparently the company has also developed a noise reduction nozzle, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in operation.

I followed up with the authors, who told me that OSHA does not find the level of noise generated by the Xlerator to be a danger to hearing. It’s not loud enough to cause immediate hearing loss and since it’s used for only about 15 seconds at a time it’s not likely to cause permanent damage.

They did advise me to put my hands a foot or so below the nozzle rather than a couple of inches, because hands in the airstream is a major factor in the noise level. 

So today I gave it a shot. If anyone was watching me they probably wondered why I was stooping down to use the dryer. But it actually worked. By keeping my hands lower the noise level was cut to an acceptable level. It took a little longer to dry my hands, but it wasn’t bad.

By David E. Williams of the Health Business Group 



April 9, 2013

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