The Ear-Splitting Effects of Noise Pollution

Source: Ian Allenden - 123RF

According to the CDC, occupational hearing loss (OHL) is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States. 

Hearing loss disability accounts for an estimated $242 million in workers’ compensation payments each year, according to the Department of Labor.

Each year, about 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work. Over 30 million U.S. workers are exposed to chemicals, some of which are harmful to the ear (ototoxic) and hazardous to hearing.

In addition to damaging workers’ quality of life, occupational hearing loss carries a high economic price to society.

Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition among adults after hypertension and arthritis.

By the numbers:

  • About 12% of the U.S. working population has hearing difficulty;
  • About 24% of the hearing difficulty among U.S. workers is caused by occupational exposures; and
  • About 8% of the U.S. working population has tinnitus (‘ringing in the ears’) and 4% has both hearing difficulty and tinnitus.

Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL) can occur when workers are exposed to loud noise or ototoxic chemicals.

Noise is considered loud (hazardous) when it reaches 85 decibels or higher, or if a person has to raise his/her voice to speak with someone 3 feet away (arm’s length).

No industry should be assumed to be free from exposure to noise and/or chemicals that can damage hearing (ototoxic chemicals).

Workplace accidents are common among workers with hearing damage due to reduced situational awareness or the inability to hear a warning siren or signal. 

Hearing conservation is an OSHA mandate that requires companies to take action and institute occupational noise and hearing conservation programs for employees who work in areas where the probable exposure to noise equals or exceeds an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA) sound level of 85 dB.

There are, however, industries and occupations in which workers are at greater risk. The NIOSH Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance Project publishes estimates of the percent of workers affected (prevalence) within U.S. industries and occupations and other statistics.

Certain biological factors – such as gender, age, race/ethnicity, genetics, and general health issues – can influence a worker’s susceptibility to the effects of noise.

Some of “tell-tale” signs of hearing loss are:

  • People regularly saying “what?” and “pardon?”;
  • Work done incorrectly by normally reliable staff who may have been misheard instructions;
  • People who need a lot of the conversation repeated several times;
  • Misunderstanding what is being said;
  • Complaining that you are not speaking clearly or loudly enough;
  • Failing to hear someone address them or to hear the telephone ringing;
  • A dislike of going to events, pubs or other noisy environments;
  • Turning up the sound on their computer too loud for your comfort;
  • Noticeably straining to hear what is being said.

As a manager, there are steps you can take to tackle hearing loss and the challenges it can create for employees within an organisation. Normalising the conversation around the condition is one. That’s where an effective and highly visible hearing health programme can really be of benefit.

Since it is not possible to measure the exact susceptibility of any individual worker, all workers must be well-protected.