Why Do Workers Still Lose Their Hearing?

You weren't surprised by the Aug. 18 JAMA study documenting a 30 percent increase in hearing loss among U.S. teenagers from 1988-1994 to 2005-2006, with an estimated 20 percent of that age group having some hearing loss as of 2005-2006. Remember, many of us worried aloud about the potential damage of personal music devices and earbuds. We predicted the next generation of workers might begin their careers having some hearing loss, a potentially devastating development if today's noise exposures endure.

We waited and waited until EPA finally proposed new hearing protector labels early this year, but that rule (find it by searching EPA HQ OAR 2003 0024 at www.regulations.gov) has yet to be finalized.

The shortcomings of the current labels and NRR ratings are well known. Studies indicate at least 3.3 million workers in the United States have occupational hearing loss and suggest the problem is concentrated in the construction, agriculture, transportation, mining, maintenance/repair, and manufacturing industries.

A newly published Australian study shows the situation is no better there. Funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing through the Hearing Loss Prevention Program and posted by Safe Work Australia, the 207-page report ("Occupational noise-induced hearing loss in Australia: Overcoming barriers to effective noise control and hearing loss prevention") points out there were about 16,500 successful workers' comp claims from July 2002 to June 2007 in Australia that involved permanent impairment because of noise exposure.

Examining studies that included nationwide surveys of more than 1,100 workers and some 1,000 managers and employers, the report says those studies indicate these are the strongest barriers to hearing loss prevention:

  • too much reliance on personal hearing protectors
  • infrequent and improper use of personal hearing protectors
  • noise not considered a serious workplace health and safety issue
  • lack of consideration of potential benefits of effective noise control
  • insufficient knowledge of the effects of loud noise on hearing and hearing loss on workers' quality of life
  • a belief that noise control costs too much
  • a belief that hearing loss is inevitable and a belief that hearing loss "will not happen to me"
  • work cultures that are resistant to change

"A clear message from the present research is that both regulatory enforcement and education are vital for achieving more effective noise control and [hearing loss] prevention," the report's conclusion states. "Employers, managers and workers need to be made aware of the real risks and available solutions -– and they need clear, concise, and readily available guidance on how to achieve these solutions. At present, there appears to be too many employers, managers and workers who believe that noise control is too expensive, too difficult, or simply not worth worrying about."

Posted by Jerry Laws on Aug 31, 2010