Workers may be at risk for work-related hearing loss
It's not given the attention it merits
Hearing loss is a surprisingly common chronic occupational condition, according to a new study's findings. Researchers added questions about self-reported hearing loss and work-related noise-induced hearing loss to the 2003 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in Michigan, a national telephone survey-based surveillance system of health conditions among adults. An estimated 19% reported hearing loss, and of this group, 29.9% reported that this was related to noise at work.1
"Given the high prevalence of hearing loss that is work-related, this is a common, if not the most common, chronic occupational condition," says Kenneth Rosenman, MD, FACPM, FACE, chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
However, Rosenman says, hearing loss is often overlooked in the workplace. "I would hypothesize that hearing loss is not considered as important, and is considered more of a bother," he says. "Social, quality of life and economic consequences that occur as the person ages and retires are not immediate problems. Like other conditions that have a chronic and not an immediate effect, this gets secondary priority."
The study's take-home message: Many workers are told that their hearing is fine, as long as they don't have a standard threshold shift during an audiogram. They are therefore less diligent about using hearing protection, and over time they develop chronic hearing loss.
Occupational health nurses need to convey the message that if employees have significant decibel loss, that constitutes hearing loss even if they don't have a standard threshold shift for that test, says Rosenman.
Test and monitor diligently
To reduce and or eliminate noise exposure in the workplace, consider enclosing equipment, engineering out the vibration in equipment, or investing in acoustical insulation.
Answer these questions, says Rosenman: Can redesign of the workspace engineer out some of the noise? Can quieter equipment be purchased when new equipment is ordered? Are people wearing their hearing protection? If not, why not?
At Waterbury, VT-based Green Mountain Coffee, occupational health professionals follow the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)'s hearing conservation program. "This includes regular testing in areas to determine whether they meet or exceed the recommended decibels," says company spokesperson Sandy Yusen.
However, Rosenman notes that there is no comprehensive hearing conservation program for the construction industry. "This is a major deficiency in the OSHA regs," he says. "The other major deficiency is that the doubling standard should be three decibels as in the rest of the world, not five decibels."
At Green Mountain Coffee, employees in hearing-protected areas are trained to wear hearing protection as part of their new employee orientation. Employees are retrained if any changes are made to their work area.
"We do annual testing on employees that work in hearing-protected areas, and monitor these areas constantly with sound level meters," says Yusen.
The company also has a strong relationship with Project WorkSAFE, a consulting branch of OSHA. "They visit on a regular basis to assist with noise monitoring and air quality monitoring," says Yusen. "They also assist us by having employees wear meters so that tests can be made over an eight hour shift, results can be reported, and any changes can be made in protection."
1. Stanbury M, Rafferty AP, Rosenman K. Prevalence of hearing loss and work-related noise-induced hearing loss in Michigan. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 2008; 50(1):72-79.
For more information on work-related hearing loss, contact:
- Kenneth Rosenman, MD, FACPM, FACE, Chief, Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. Phone: (517) 353 1846. Fax: (517) 432- 3606. E-mail: Rosenman@msu.edu.