Protecting Worker HearingPosted on by
These days it seems there are so many steps to stay safe from the COVID-19 virus, but we should also remember to remain diligent in our efforts to protect against other workplace hazards. There is a dramatic impact on quality of life associated with worker hearing loss and ‘ringing in the ears’ (tinnitus). Unless precautions are taken to protect hearing, workers will need to deal with the hearing they have permanently lost and the annoyance or disruption from tinnitus symptoms. In addition to affecting communication and relationships with others, hearing loss is associated with cognitive (mental) decline and heart problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. It is also strongly associated with depression. Tinnitus, which often occurs along with hearing loss, can disrupt sleep and concentration and is associated with both depression and anxiety. Worker hearing loss is also a safety hazard. Because of communication issues, employees with hearing loss may struggle to follow directions or communicate with co-workers, which might hinder their ability to perform work tasks safely. In many workplace settings such as in construction and manufacturing, an audible alert is often a sign of danger and/or the first indicator that something is not right. If employees are unable to hear warning sounds, the danger to them and others increases.
Hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses. About 12% of the working population has hearing loss, but it is more common within some industries. For example, 27% of all workers in Utilities, 23% of all workers in Mining, and 18% of all workers in Manufacturing have hearing loss. Work-related hearing loss is caused by loud noise and chemicals causing damage to the inner ear (ototoxic chemicals). Ototoxic chemicals include organic solvents like trichloroethylene, heavy metals like mercury and lead, and asphyxiants like carbon monoxide (exhaust). Fifty-eight percent of worker hearing losses are caused by workplace noise. At the present time, we do not know what percent of worker hearing losses are caused by ototoxic exposures, but we are pursuing future related research efforts to address this concern. There are workers in every industry sector that are exposed to loud noise or ototoxic chemicals, or both.
Fortunately, with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technologies, work-related hearing loss can be entirely prevented.
What Can Everyone Do to Prevent Work-related Hearing Loss?
- Find out if the noise in your workspace is loud enough to damage hearing:
- If you must raise your voice to speak with someone at arm’s length (about 3 feet away), then the noise is likely at a hazardous level (≥85 decibels). Use a noise meter to measure the noise or check the noise level using a sound level meter app on your phone, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app.
- Reduce worker noise exposure:
- It is always best to reduce noise at the source of the noise. Use quieter equipment and keep equipment well maintained and lubricated.
- Enclose the source of the noise or place a barrier between workers and the source.
- Increase the distance between workers and the source of the noise. Distance is your friend.
- Reduce worker time in noisy areas.
- Always wear hearing protection in noisy areas, and if using foam plugs, insert them correctly.
- Test hearing protection (‘fit test’) to make sure each worker is wearing the appropriate type of hearing protection and that it is being worn correctly.
- If listening to music or something else, keep the volume at a safe level and only listen in areas that are not noisy.
- Reduce or stop worker exposure to chemicals that may damage hearing:
- Use a less-toxic or non-toxic chemical.
- Wear gloves, long sleeves, and eye protection.
- Wear a respirator or other protective equipment, as appropriate.
- Read and follow all chemical safety instructions.
- Learn more about hearing loss prevention here.
Most workers must protect themselves from multiple hazards on the job. Preventing hearing loss needs to remain a priority. Do not let your guard down. Hearing loss lasts a lifetime.
NIOSH Hearing Loss Prevention Cross-sector Council
Elizabeth A. Masterson, PhD, CPH, COHC, is an Assistant Coordinator for the NIOSH Hearing Loss Prevention Cross-Sector Program a Research Epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering
Amanda S. Azman, AuD, is an Assistant Coordinator for the NIOSH Hearing Loss Prevention Cross-Sector Program and a Research Audiologist in the NIOSH Pittsburgh Mining Research Division
Travis Parsons, MS, is the Associate Director of Occupational Safety and Health at the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America