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Are you ‘working’ towards hearing loss?
Are you ‘working’ towards hearing loss?

In the United States, hearing loss is the third-most common chronic physical condition among adults following hypertension and arthritis5. Approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) report trouble hearing5. People often tend to associate hearing loss with the ageing process but interestingly enough, a large proportion of people experience hearing loss as a result of excessive noise exposure, based on the work they do. Occupational hearing loss (OHL) is defined as any hearing loss that is the direct result of exposure to dangerous sound levels or ototoxic (poisonous) chemicals in the workplace3. Research has shown that approximately 12% of the U.S. working force experiences difficulty in hearing. Of these, 24% is caused by occupational exposures. In addition, an estimated 8% of the U.S. working population has tinnitus (‘ringing in the ears’) and 4% has both hearing difficulty and tinnitus5.

Hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses, but it is more common within some industries. 27% Of all workers in Utilities, 23% of all workers in Mining, and 18% of all workers in Manufacturing have hearing loss1.

Some jobs associated with a higher risk for loss include4:

  • Farming (noisy equipment).
  • Airline ground maintenance.
  • Construction.
  • Jobs involving loud music or machinery.
  • Military jobs that involve combat, aircraft noise, or other loud noise.

The causes of OHL:

OHL can occur when workers are exposed to excessively loud noise or loud noise for long periods of time and/or ototoxic chemicals.

Noise is considered hazardous when it reaches 85 decibels or higher, or if a person has to raise his/her voice to speak with someone three feet away. Normal conversation reaches approximately 60 dB4. Ototoxic chemicals can make the ear more susceptible to the damaging effects of hazardous noise, cause hearing loss, or both.

The effects of OHL4:

Untreated hearing loss is known to have adverse effects on life quality and work functioning. That is why it is imperative that precautions are implemented to protect hearing, or workers will experience the effects of permanent hearing loss accompanied by the disruption of tinnitus symptoms. Hearing loss affects the ability to communicate effectively and can add strain to relationships as a result of communication barriers. Social withdrawal and loss of independence increase the link of hearing loss to depression. In addition, it is associated with cognitive (mental) decline and heart problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Tinnitus, which often occurs alongside hearing loss, can disrupt sleep and concentration and is associated with both depression and anxiety. Worker hearing loss poses a safety hazard, as employees with hearing loss may struggle to follow directions or communicate with co-workers, which might hinder their ability to perform tasks safely and optimally. In many workplace settings such as the construction and manufacturing environment, an audible warning is often used as the initial sign of danger. If employees are unable to hear warning sounds, they can pose an increased risk of danger to themselves and their colleagues. Other than damaging workers’ quality of life, OHL carries a high economic price to society and severely affects productivity rates.

Employers have an obligation to safeguard and protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of employees in the workplace. By implementing an effective hearing conservation programme, through means of OHL surveillance, employers can help to minimise and mitigate the risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss, whilst complying with legal obligations of worker safety.

What is OHL surveillance?

OHL surveillance includes5:

  • Gathering data on employee wellness, health, noise exposure data, and related information for analysis.
  • Estimating how many workers have hearing loss or related health outcomes and how many workers are exposed.
  • Examining these estimates by industry and occupation.
  • Monitoring trends over time.

In the United States, laws have been established to regulate the maximum exposure that is permitted in the workplace. This includes the length of hours and decibel level of exposure. If the sound equals to or exceeds the maximum levels permitted, the employer has to take the necessary steps to ensure adequate hearing protection. Failure to comply could result in the employee gaining a hearing loss and taking legal action against the employer.

Fortunately, with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technologies, work-related hearing loss can be entirely prevented. It is also important that workers get screened regularly for hearing loss, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, to ensure the wellbeing of the workplace and promote wellness programmes. Workers exposed to loud noise may especially benefit from these programmes3.

Contact hearX Group for more information on setting up your occupational hearing conservation programme.

1. Blackwell DL, Lucas JW, Clarke TC. Summary health statistics for U.S. adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2012 (PDF). National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(260). 2014.

2. Lin FR, Niparko JK, Ferrucci L. Hearing loss prevalence in the United States. [Letter] Arch Intern Med. 2011 Nov 14; 171(20): 1851-1852.

3. Masterson, E. A; Azman, S.A; and Parsons, T. 2021. Protecting worker hearing. Retrieved from: https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2021/02/05/protecting-worker-hearing/

4. MedlinePlus. 2021. Occupational hearing loss. Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001048.htm

5. National Institute for occupational health and safety (NIOSH). 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ohl/default.html

6. Neitzel, R; Chucri, A.C. 2020. Introducing an Occupational Health Resource: The Occupational Noise Job Exposure Matrix. Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001048.htm

For more information on hearX Group,
please visit: www.hearxgroup.com
Nausheen Dawood
Consultant Audiologist - hearX Group SA