Exposure to thunderous noise onboard Navy ships—from jet engines, machine rooms, cockpits, firing ranges and other work locations—causes about one in four sailors to experience hearing loss. Throughout the military, hearing loss and tinnitus affect up to 600,000 personnel and cost the Department of Veterans Affairs an estimated $6 billion a year.
To turn the tide on the avoidable condition of noise-induced hearing loss, Kurt Yankaskas, program manager with the Office of Naval Research and vociferous advocate for preventing hearing loss, developed a wide-ranging program to prevent what he terms “auditory injury.” Collaborating within the Department of Defense and outside, he seeks solutions from researchers and companies, and decides which technologies or techniques to test and implement.
According to Rick Rogers, principal research scientist at Harvard University, Yankaskas “leads the federal government’s premier research effort for combatting noise-induced hearing loss.”
When Navy personnel seek his help, Yankaskas pulls from an ever-growing acoustic toolbox that includes damping materials for ships and submarines; earplugs and other personal protection, and signage on ships to remind people to use it; and funding for promising research on reversing hearing loss and determining who is particularly susceptible.
“He’s definitely contributed to protecting hearing and preventing hearing loss of the young men and women who operate our ships and submarines,” said Rear Admiral Lorin Selby.
Yankaskas himself experienced temporary partial hearing loss from jet noise in the sleeping compartments of a Navy aircraft carrier he was evaluating for noise, despite wearing hearing protection and spending just a weekend on board the ship.
Long-term exposure to noise levels of about 85 decibels—about the level of a garbage disposal or dishwasher—can damage the auditory nerves and kill the hair-like fibers of the inner ear, leading to permanent hearing loss. In turn, hearing loss can hamper the awareness and communication ability of sailors and Marines, compromising their safety. Jet noise can be in the range of 140 decibels, for example, and sailors on aircraft carriers sleep right under the flight deck.
Yankaskas’ work has led to custom-molded earplugs for more than 6,000 sailors; quieter, more efficient equipment for abrasive blasting of corrosion and other substances from ship hulls and walls; and computer-aided modeling technology used to pinpoint the loudest areas of a ship so the Navy can do something to reduce the noise.
For the modeling technology, Yankaskas commissioned a measuring tool from a company to identify surfaces that produced the loudest reverberations on Navy vessels. The Navy can then coat those “hot spots” with a ceramic-like material to dampen the noise, rather than apply it to whole walls, thus saving weight—a critical need for ships.
This protective coating was used on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which returned to service in January 2019 following a four-year overhaul.
The research Yankaskas commissions, and the technologies he finds, tests and recommends have been used by other federal and civilian organizations. The Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, have used the dampening material to abate sound transmission in more than a dozen hydroelectric power plants.
Through Yankaskas’ site visits and shared research, the military is more educated on the potential for noise-induced hearing loss and ways to prevent it. In addition, his guidance and advocacy have led to training for tens of thousands of military personnel across the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force.
“He wants folks to always be mindful of how to preserve their hearing,” said Sharon Parish of the Naval Sea Systems Command. She said Yankaskas uses “advanced scientific developments and engineering breakthroughs to improve hearing, situational awareness and hearing protection for our warfighters in operations and training missions.”
Yankaskas also oversaw development of a mobile app on hearing health, and he has personally trained many sailors and Marines on the proper use of hearing protection. In addition, he is the co-author, with several others, of a paper that led to a 2015 Department of Defense noise-limit standard for all new military vehicles, construction, portable air compressors and other equipment.
All these protective tactics have added up. “We’ve come light years from where we were 30 years ago when I was a young officer on submarines,” Selby said. As Yankaskas follows the developments of ongoing research projects in academia and the private sector, including on medical interventions to prevent noise-induced hearing loss, he said he always keeps in mind the people he works to benefit.
“I straightforwardly work for the sailor and the Marine,” Yankaskas said. “They’re my North Star.”