Hearing Loss: The Most Common Workplace Injury

Dr. Howard Tamashiro

What is the most common workplace injury?

Exposure to loud noise can permanently damage the inner ear. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that hearing loss has become the most common workplace injury in the US. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise every year. It’s a particular risk for workers on construction sites, factory lines and other workplaces that have constant high levels of noise.

Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. Though there are laws in place to protect workers’ hearing, the statistics revealed by CDC suggest that much more can be done to prevent these injuries.

Who is experiencing it?

The industries with the highest number of workers with hearing loss are mining, construction and manufacturing. It can be a problem for any industry that involves constant exposure to sound, so people like musicians, studio engineers and airport workers can also be at risk in their lines of work.

Noise-induced hearing loss can be cumulative, which means it builds up over time through prolonged and repeated exposure to noise. Surprisingly, studies have shown that most hearing loss occurs in industries with moderate noise levels, rather than high levels. This is because most workplaces with industrial noise levels take precautions much more frequently than those with lower noise levels.

What is the impact?

For an individual person, hearing loss can be life-changing. It can affect communication, independence, relationships and personal confidence. It may mean that they can no longer work in their field, which in turn affects household income. Treating hearing loss, for example with hearing aids, can overcome many of these problems. However, prevention is always better.

Hearing loss also takes a toll on businesses and insurance companies. The Department of Labor estimates that $242 million is claimed through worker’s compensation every year, because of hearing loss.

What are the laws?

Laws state that workplace noise should be restricted to 85 decibels for 8 hours a day. At the 85dB limit, employers must provide training programs, audiometric testing and free hearing protectors to their workers.

Rules differ in the construction industry, where workers have a maximum limit of 95dB per 8-hour exposure.

What are the problems?

Unfortunately, laws are often ignored and staff are not given proper training. In some cases, the precautions provided are not suitable for the work environment. For example, many workplaces provide individual protection measures for each worker, like protective headphones. This means that workers can take their hearing protection off at any time, leaving them at risk. More sensible solutions would be to build noise barriers around noisy equipment or invest in quieter machines.

Critics also argue that the laws are outdated – some rules have been in operation since the 1970s – and the maximum limits for noise levels are too low. In the meantime, employers must take responsibility to create safe workplaces to protect their workers and avoid hefty insurance payouts.

What steps can be taken?

All workplaces must be fully responsible for controlling the noise levels within their environments. Employers should minimize their employees’ exposure to loud noise, and use effective protective equipment.

Training about the dangers of noise in the workplace should be available for all workers. This means workers can understand the risks and make full use of available protection to take care of their hearing.

Employers should also take steps to isolate noisy machines, and if possible, replace them. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)’s Buy Quiet campaign encourages businesses to invest in quieter industrial machinery. Its website features an online database of power tools, and provides noise level information for each one.

The US Department of Labor’s “Hear and Now” challenge has been encouraging people to submit new inventions to overcome the problem of workplace hearing loss. Hopefully this nationwide call will result in new creative technologies and solutions to tackle the country’s biggest workplace injury.

If you are worried about your hearing health, get in touch with us today. Our hearing care specialists are happy to answer your questions and give you advice. Contact our offices in Honolulu and Aiea for more information!

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