Listen Up to Prevent Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is one of the most pervasive occupational health problems plaguing America's workers today. It's also one of the most preventable.

Roughly 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise on the job. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently named hearing loss as one of the 21 priority areas for research in the next century. Noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable; but once acquired, hearing loss is permanent and irreversible.

The agency recently partnered with the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) and the Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences Department of Wayne State University to sponsor a day-long symposium on best practices in hearing loss prevention.

Among the topics discussed at the Oct. 28 meeting in Detroit were solutions for successful hearing protection and safety programs, advancements in hearing protection design and noise abatement and control, and new federal and state initiatives. "The underlying concept behind the meeting was that, as an industry, we've been practicing hearing conservation in one form or another for a long time for better than 15 years under federal regulation and as long as 30 years-plus in most situations, and there are some real questions that are still outstanding," NHCA President Lee Hager said.

The conference allowed participants to share best practices for preventing work-related hearing loss. According to NIOSH, noise-induced hearing loss is the most common occupational disease and the second most self-reported occupational illness or injury.

While anyone can be at risk for noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace, studies show that workers in many industries experience higher exposures to dangerous levels of noise:

  • 90 percent of coal miners will have some form of hearing impairment by age 52 (compared to 9 percent of the general population);
  • 70 percent of male, metal/nonmetal miners will experience hearing impairment by age 60;
  • 48 percent of plumbers reported that they had a perceived hearing loss; and
  • 44 percent of carpenters reported a perceived hearing loss.

Agriculture, construction, manufacturing, utilities, transportation and military are some of the other industries with high numbers of exposed workers, according to NIOSH. Although comprehensive data on the costs of occupational hearing loss is not available, the agency believes that compensation costs alone are in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

For more information on this issue, look for the article on hearing conservation in the January 2000 issue of Occupational Hazards. If you do not receive the magazine and would like a free subscription, click on the "Subscriptions" button to the left of this article.

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