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Student's Research Reveals Risk of Noise Exposure at Hockey Games

Sean Hoverson and Deanna Meinke

April 19, 2023

Sean Hoverson (left) and Deanna Meinke, professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and graduate coordinator of Audiology, at the National Hearing Conservation Association conference in Jacksonville, Florida, in February 2023.

Sean Hoverson has attended hundreds of hockey games. Like most fans, the University of Northern Colorado Doctor of Audiology candidate didn’t wear hearing protection, nor did he recognize the need. Conducted over a season of Colorado Eagles games, his doctoral scholarly project, “Spectator Noise Exposures During a Season of Minor League Hockey,” revealed the risk.

“There’s something called noise dose percentage. Once you get past 100% dose, you’re overexposed to noise. Based on a recreational community guideline, the spectator was overexposed for every single game they attended,” Hoverson said.

Sean Hoverson

Sean Hoverson

To reach that conclusion, he wore a noise dosimeter, a microphone-like device, on his shoulder to measure the cumulative exposure to noise from the arena at 34 regular-season games. Two graduate research assistants helped collect data during six playoff games when he was out of state for his externship. He collected the data using multiple sampling parameters to determine dose percentages. His research made the case that spectators should wear hearing protection.

The College of Natural and Health Sciences and the Communication Sciences and Disorders program helped fund Hoverson’s study, which was the first to measure noise exposure of any sport during an entire season of play. In his first public speaking engagement, Hoverson presented his research at the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) conference in Jacksonville, Florida, in February 2023. In a nutshell, he said raising awareness for hearing protection use at sports events could lead venues to mitigate noise exposures by providing hearing protection, reminding spectators to take advantage of it, and designing quieter spectator areas.“At NHCA, we had a good discussion in terms of what else can be done for hearing conservation at these types of events,” he said.

His interest in audiology came from a childhood filled with middle ear issues. While completing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of North Dakota, he shadowed a Grand Forks audiologist for a few weeks and witnessed the doctor-patient bond. A graduate assistantship helped bring Hoverson to UNC, where he worked at the university’s Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Clinic. He also completed internships at Brighton School District 27J and Longmont Hearing and Tinnitus Center.

Hoverson credits Professor Deanna Meinke with helping him complete his research and preparing him for his presentation. Meinke co-directs Dangerous Decibels®, an evidence-based intervention program designed to reduce the rate of noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.

“She gave me confidence to pursue the topic and present the research. That entire time, she was saying I could do it. Her guidance with the Institutional Review Board helped me through that process as well,” he recalled.

Meinke said Hoverson came to UNC with a desire to learn and grow through experience.

“If he was given an opportunity, he would master it,” Meinke said.

And he created opportunities along the way. Instead of doing a literature review and applying it to audiology, Hoverson chose the more difficult path of conducting original research.

“It took a tremendous amount of commitment to this study,” she said. “Sean wore the dosimeter for every single home game — Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights; went to classes all week; worked in the clinic seeing patients; and calibrated equipment and downloaded data between games.”

She noted that noise exposure damages ears cumulatively over a lifetime, so people don’t realize when it’s dangerous. Meinke believes Hoverson’s research can advance science and inform public health.

“This is the only study that measured cumulative noise exposure for an entire season of play and demonstrated that you have to sample across a number of games to truly characterize the risk. The goal isn’t to tell people to go to hockey games and be quiet; it’s to figure out how to make the event safer, such as changing the acoustics of an arena or having the venue make hearing protection available,” she said.

Meinke said advising Hoverson was a delight because he was motivated, curious and willing to work hard. He’s continued to display those traits in a yearlong externship. Since May 2022, Hoverson has been an audiology trainee at Veteran’s Administration clinics in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington.

“I’m training to be an audiologist and practice under a supervising audiologist. So, I do everything an audiologist would typically do — hearing evaluations or diagnostic tests, and discussing and fitting hearing aids,” he said. “This rotation has been absolutely wonderful, and I love that I’m able to help veterans.”

After he graduates in May 2023, Hoverson hopes to find a full-time audiologist position at a veteran’s clinic or hospital.

— written by Brenda Gillen