Work-related hearing loss continues to be a critical workplace safety and health issue.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has named hearing loss one of the 21 priority areas for research in the next century.
According to a new fact sheet by NIOSH, noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable but once acquired, hearing loss is permanent and irreversible.
Approximately 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise on the job and an additional 9 million are at risk for hearing loss from other agents such as solvents and metals, says NIOSH.
While any worker can be at risk for noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace, workers in many industries have higher exposure to dangerous levels of noise.
NIOSH notes that industries with high number of exposed workers include: agriculture; mining; construction; manufacturing; utilities; transportation and military.
According to NIOSH, there is no comprehensive data on the economic impact of hearing loss, however the institute provides localized examples as an indication of the broader economic burden.
For example, in Washington State, workers'' compensation disability settlements for hearing-related conditions cost $4.8 million in 1999, not including medical costs.
"When applied to the national workforce, occupational hearing loss costs an estimated $242.4 million per year in disability alone," says NIOSH.
NIOSH says the best way to reduce the risk of noise-induced hearing loss and the associated compensation cost is through prevention.
According to NIOSH, prevention methods include:
- Removing hazardous noise from the workplace through engineering controls (i.e. installing a muffler or an acoustic barrier) is the most effective way to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
- Using hearing protectors such as ear plugs and ear muffs when feasible to otherwise reduce noise to a safe level.
- Implementing a strong hearing loss prevention program that includes noise assessments, engineering controls, audiometric monitoring of workers'' hearing, appropriate use of hearing protectors, worker education and program evaluation.
For more information on occupational hearing loss, visit the NIOSH Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh/01-103.html.
by Virginia Sutcliffe