In recent times, significant focus has been geared towards ramping up measures to increase and improve COVID-19 workplace safety, thereby neglecting many other work-related hazards. An estimated 22 million workers are exposed to higher-than-ideal noise levels each year, making Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL) a significant workplace health hazard that greatly impacts employees’ quality of life and the employers’ bottom line. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), approximately 12% of working U.S. adults have hearing problems, with about 25% of those relating to occupational noise exposures. Additionally, the financial burden on employers is equally large; NIOSH estimated workers’ compensation claims due to occupational hearing loss disability at about $242 million annually.
The good news is that Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL) is preventable. The financial liability can be significantly reduced if employers and workplace executives implement proactive control measures that limit its substantial effect on the employees.
What Causes Occupational Hearing Loss?
Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL) is an illness caused by repeated or long-term exposure to loud noises and hazardous chemicals that affects the inner ear (ototoxic chemicals). According to NIOSH, “Loud Noise” is defined as unsafe when it reaches 85 dBA or higher (decibels sound pressure level measured using the A frequency-weighting network on a sound level meter), or in layman’s terms, if a person must raise their voice to speak with someone about 3 feet away or at arm’s length.
Hazardous irritants (Ototoxic chemicals) that can result in hearing loss include solvents like trichloroethylene, heavy metals, and compounds such as mercury and lead; asphyxiants like carbon monoxide (exhaust) and hydrogen cyanide.
For a long time, the risk of Occupational Hearing Loss has been notably discussed and addressed for employees working in mining, manufacturing, transportation, and construction but a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Audiology reveals that a large number of workers in sub-sector service agency workers such as publishing, landscaping, dry cleaning, pyrotechnics, entertainment and recreation, healthcare are equally at higher risk. It is important to recognize the signs of OHL and know how to prevent it!
Symptoms Of Occupational Hearing Loss
OHL has debilitating effects and a drastic life-changing impact. Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, symptoms vary from one worker to another. Here are some auditory and non-auditory symptoms to look out for.
Common Auditory symptoms include:
- Tinnitus, i.e., change in sound perception (Ringing in the ears that cannot be ascribed to external sources)
- Difficulty understanding speech- “I can hear but cannot understand!”.
- Muffling of acoustic cues (e.g., beepers, alarms, signals)
Common non-auditory symptoms include:
- Sleep disturbance because of tinnitus
- Frustration and social avoidance
- Cardiovascular disease: In a 2004 study on hearing loss in auto factories, researchers repeatedly noted that noise exposure increases systolic and diastolic blood pressure, changes heart rate and causes the release of stress hormones (Lusk et al.).
- Dementia: In a study led by Johns Hopkins expert Frank Lin, M.D., Ph. D., that tracked 639 adults for about 12 years, researchers found that dementia risk doubled in individuals with mild hearing loss. Moderate hearing loss tripled their risk, and adults with severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.
If you begin experiencing these symptoms, consult your healthcare provider immediately. OHL can worsen over time if protective measures are not implemented.
How can Workers reduce the risk of Occupational Hearing Loss?
There are several ways employers and employees can help prevent OHL and provide a safer workplace. If the employer notices that employees must raise their voices to speak with someone about 3 feet away, then there is a likelihood of noise at a hazardous level (≥85 decibels). Here are some ways employers and employees can limit exposure and create a safer workplace:
1. Noise Evaluation
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. If the sound level meter indicates a hazardous level, it is always best to reduce noise at the source of the noise. Also, use quieter equipment and keep equipment well maintained and lubricated.
2. Reduce risk exposure
Reduce time spent in a noisy environment and take frequent breaks from noisy activity. Create a reasonable distance between you and the noise source. For example, if you are listening to music or other activities, keep the volume at a safe range and do not listen to music in a noisy environment. You should also stop or limit exposure to chemicals contributing to hearing damage.
3. Utilize Proper PPE
While wearing personal protective equipment such as headphones might seem uncomfortable, it does a great job of protecting against work-related hearing loss. When working in an area with hazardous noise, always wear hearing protection such as earplugs and wear them correctly.
When in contact with hazardous chemicals, wear proper protective equipment such as a respirator, eye shields, and gloves as appropriate. Also, never use chemicals without reading and following the chemical safety instructions.
4. Check Your Hearing Ability
Performing audiograms help to identify deterioration in the hearing ability of one or both ears. Implementing annual audiograms will help initiate protective follow-up measures before hearing loss progresses. Work Health Solutions offers a variety of health tests and screenings to ensure your workplace is safe! Understanding the causes, symptoms, and preventative ways to avoid hazardous noise will keep you safe and productive in the workplace.
We Can Help!
Work Health Solutions has made it its mission to help provide necessary healthcare for those who need it, especially in the working environment. We understand the difficulty of taking care of employees in the workplace, including injury prevention, and if you need help putting together a strategy, contact us today.