Work Related Hearing Loss

What is Work Related Hearing Loss?

Any hearing loss incurred because of a person’s occupation or at work is termed as work related hearing loss or occupational hearing loss. Work-related hearing loss is characterized by damage to the inner ear from vibrations or noise in the working environment. Work-related hearing loss has become quite a common occupational hazard. Not many people know, but within every industry, there exists a risk for work-related hearing loss for its workers. Work-related hearing loss, though a worrying condition, is preventable.

Work Related Hearing Loss

How Big A Problem Is Work-Related Hearing Loss?

In USA, after high blood pressure and arthritis, loss of hearing has become the 3rd commonest chronic physical ailment. Hearing loss is more common than vision trouble, diabetes or even cancer. So, it is not surprising, that, hearing loss has become the most common work-related medical ailments. About more than 12% of the working class population suffers from hearing difficulties; and nearly 1 out of 5 cases of workers suffering from hearing difficulties are as a result of work-related exposures. Work-related exposures, which cause work related hearing loss include: chemicals (ototoxic chemicals) and loud noise causing damage to the inner ear. Ototoxic chemicals include heavy metals like mercury and lead, organic solvents like trichloroethylene and asphyxiants like carbon monoxide.

When is Sound or Noise Considered to Cause Hearing Loss?

Noise or any sound becomes hazardous and is considered loud, when it reaches 85 decibels or higher. Noise is also considered potentially harmful when a person needs to increase his/her voice to talk to someone who is only 3 feet away.

What are the Causes of Work Related Hearing Loss?

Over a period of time, constant exposure to loud noise at workplace causes work related hearing loss. Any sound or noise that is above 80 decibels causes vibrations that are strong enough to cause inner ear damage; especially if the sound is constant at the work place.

What are the Signs & Symptoms of Work-Related Hearing Loss?

  • During the initial stages, work-related hearing loss can be asymptomatic, which is why many workers fail to recognize this condition in its early stages.
  • The first sign of work-related hearing loss, after constant exposure to noise at work place, is the decreased ability of the worker to hear high-pitched sounds.
  • The worker also experiences the inability to understand someone who is speaking in a crowd with high-background noise.
  • As the work-related hearing loss progresses, the patient’s severity of hearing loss increases.
  • Other symptoms of work-related hearing loss include sensation of ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or fullness in the ears.

Statistics of Workers Suffering from Work Related Hearing Loss

In American workplaces:

  • There are about 18% of workers who are exposed to hazardous noise every year and are at increased risk for suffering from work-related hearing loss.
  • There are about 11 million workers who are exposed to solvents resulting in increased risk of work-related hearing loss
  • Exposure to ototoxic chemicals also damage hearing and cause work-related hearing loss in many workers.
  • Every industry sector carries many workers who are exposed to chemicals or noise that can cause increased risk for work-related hearing loss.

About 20% of workers who are exposed to potentially harmful noise have hearing impairment. This type of hearing impairment resulting from work-related hearing loss affects the worker’s daily activities, including difficulty in understanding speech. There are higher percentages of workers with work-related hearing loss working in industry sectors, such as construction and mining.

How Important is Preventing Work Related Hearing Loss?

It is very important to prevent work-related hearing loss, as almost all the cases of work related hearing loss are permanent and this has a great impact on the quality of life of the worker. Work related hearing loss tends to worsens resulting in difficulty of the worker in understanding other, which can lead to isolation of the affected worker.
Hearing loss or work related hearing loss is also linked with cognitive decline and heart problems, such as heart disease and hypertension. Work related hearing loss is also strongly related with depression.

Work related hearing loss can also cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears), which cause can sleep disturbances and difficulty in concentration resulting in anxiety and depression.
People suffering from work-related hearing loss also cannot enjoy their life, as they can’t hear the sounds they want to hear, such as voice of their near and dear ones; music etc.

Hence it is important to prevent work related hearing loss.

How to Prevent Work-Related Hearing Loss?

The worker first of all needs to find out if the noise at his/her work place is potentially hazardous. If the worker has to raise his/her voice to speak to someone at arm’s length, then it means the noise at the workplace is potentially hazardous to the worker. Other than this, a sound level meter app on the phone, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app can be used by the worker to check the noise level at the work place.

The following steps can be takes to prevent work-related hearing loss and to cut down on the noise exposure at work place:

  • To prevent work related hearing loss, it is important that the worker reduce the noise at the source itself. Using quieter equipment and also maintaining the equipment by keeping it lubricated helps in preventing work related hearing loss.
  • Alternatively, the worker can place an enclosure or a barrier between the source of the noise and himself.
  • The worker should also increase the distance between himself and the source of the noise for preventing work related hearing loss.
  • The worker should try to spend as less time as is possible in noisy areas.
  • In order to prevent work related hearing loss, a worker should always wear hearing protection or use foam plugs when working in noisy areas.
  • When listening to music, it is important to keep the volume at low volume or safe volume and listen in less noisy areas.

It is important that the worker cut down or completely stop exposure to chemicals, which can cause work related hearing loss by using: non-toxic or less-toxic chemicals; wear long sleeves, gloves and eye protection; wearing respirator etc; and by following all chemical safety instructions.

What are the Jobs which can Cause Work Related Hearing Loss?

Jobs which carry a high risk for work related hearing loss are: construction, airline ground maintenance, farming, orchestra, military jobs which involve combat, aircraft noise etc., and jobs involving loud machinery or music.

What can the Employers do to Prevent Work Related Hearing Loss?

The employers need to take certain actions to prevent their workers from suffering work related hearing loss. The employers should provide their workers with hearing protection, instruction, training and information etc.; especially if the daily noise exposure level of the worker is likely to cross 80dB. (A). This is referred to as the lower exposure action level.

If the worker’s daily average exposure level will exceed 85dB(A), then the employer needs to take upper exposure action level, which includes controlling the noise at its source and assigning hearing protection zones with the mandatory use of ear protection.

The employer should review noisy machines, where the worker’s exposure can exceed 85 dB (A). These should be identified and implemented for noise reduction controls.
It is also important to reduce the noise exposures at the source, such as engineering controls, instead of trying to prevent work related hearing loss with the use of hearing protection. This can be done by using improved equipment, installation of acoustic enclosures or screens and relocation of noisy equipment to distant locations.

Hearing protection should only be used by the employees when it is not possible to control or reduce the noise at its source; especially when it exceeds 80 dB (A).

The hearing protection provided to the workers for prevention of work-related hearing loss should be capable of decreasing the noise level at the ear of the worker.

It is also important that the workers receive instructions, information and training in the hearing protection program, such as where to get the ear protection and how to fit the hearing protection properly.

The employer should provide the right type of support to their workers along with access to health professionals for detecting and preventing work related hearing loss.

What are the Complications of Work Related Hearing Loss?

The complications of work -related hearing loss include: permanent deafness, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress, anxiety, decreased productivity and increased risk of industrial accidents.

Diagnosis of Work Related Hearing Loss

Work Related Hearing Loss can be diagnosed with medical history and physical examination of the affected worker. Other than this, the following tests are done to diagnose work-related hearing loss:

Audiometry is a diagnostic tool, which assesses the worker’s ability to hear sounds.

Imaging tests, such as MRI and CT scans of the ear canal and brain are done to exclude other causes of hearing loss.

What is the Treatment for Work Related Hearing Loss?

As of now, there is no cure for Work Related Hearing Loss. The aim of treatment for work related hearing loss is to halt its progression and help the worker develop skills to cope with work related hearing loss. The treatment for work-related hearing loss includes:

  • Learning and developing lip reading skills of the worker.
  • Using hearing aids by the worker suffering from work related hearing loss.
  • Avoiding occupations with ‘high sound levels’.
  • Wearing ear protection when working.

What is the Prognosis of Work Related Hearing Loss?

Work Related Hearing Loss leads to permanent hearing disability; however, there are many workers who can lead a normal or near normal life with the right and early treatment and with the support of their loved ones.

The workers are encouraged to report any problems they experience at their workplace including work related hearing loss.

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