According to the CDC, hearing loss is more a more common condition than diabetes, vision trouble or cancer. In fact, it falls just behind high blood pressure and arthritis as one of the most common chronic physical conditions.
Most workplace hearing loss is the result of exposure to loud noise or certain chemicals such as solvents, heavy metals and asphyxiants. The CDC reports that every year 22 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise, and a further 10 million are exposed to potentially damaging solvents. Some of the occupations where workers are most at risk for these types of exposures include farming, construction and factory work. Here are 5 occupations where your workers might be at risk for hearing loss and the measures you can take as an employer to help prevent it.
Construction workers are at an increased risk of hearing loss, according to the CDC. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 51% of construction workers are exposed to damaging noise levels, 14% have experienced hearing difficulties, and 7% suffer from tinnitus. This debilitating and often irreversible condition causes sufferers to experience constant ringing in the ears and hearing loss.
The risk for construction workers lies in the type of equipment and tools they use. A large truck that is 5 yards away has a decibel level of 90, while a jackhammer that is three feet away has a decibel level of 120. Decibel levels measure both the volume and vibration of noise and levels above 80 can result in damage to the inner ear.
What You Can Do
- Post warning signs whenever possible, where noise dangers are present.
- Encourage workers to avoid areas of high noise danger.
- Whenever possible, consider purchasing noise-reducing equipment.
- Leverage engineering and administration controls to reduce noise exposure. For example, constructing barriers or schedule changes can help.
- Provide PPE designed to prevent or mitigate hearing damage, including headphones and earmuffs.
- Deliver training to educate workers on the risks of potential hearing loss and how they can protect themselves.
- Educate workers on mitigating factors that could potentially put them at higher risk, including smoking, diabetes and listening to loud music.
Airports are busy, noisy places, as are the planes themselves. Sources of excessive noise on the ground can include aircraft engines, takeoff preparations and braking. In the air, engines and turbulence over the fuselage are also sources of sustained noise. Announcements and other mechanical noises can also contribute. Often these noises are worse toward the rear of the cabin, near windows or close to the engines.
What You Can Do
- Maintenance personnel and crew members should wear appropriate PPE, either headphones or earmuffs.
- Deliver training on potential noise dangers, mitigating factors that could aggravate hearing loss and prevention measures.
- Passengers can try sitting away from high noise areas, avoiding the windows, rear cabin and the engines.
- Install engineering controls and administrative procedures to mitigate exposure. This includes increased automation of tasks such as baggage handling.
- Additional insulation within an aircraft can help decrease noise exposure.
In 2000, the Mining Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) instituted mandatory standards designed to prevent hearing loss among miners. There was a definite need for these regulations. The CDC estimates that 80% of American miners are exposed to a time-weighted average (TWA) that exceeds 85 dBA. A NIOSH analysis revealed that approximately 90% of coal miners over the age of 50 had hearing loss and 49% of metal and non-metal miners also had a hearing impairment, a startling figure when compared to the nonoccupational-noise-exposed population, of which only 10% have any type of hearing impairment at 50.
What You Can Do
- Identify areas and machinery that present high levels of noise.
- Start with education and training that highlights areas of concern as well as mitigating factors and prevention. NIOSH offers training modules that can help employers deliver these messages.
- Empower workers to take mitigating actions and to report areas of concern.
- Use durable and practical noise controls with your equipment. Examples include dual-sprocket continuous mining machine chains and drill bit isolators.
- Consider retrofitting existing equipment to reduce noise exposure.
- Provide appropriate PPE designed to eliminate or reduce noise.
Farmers and agricultural workers are exposed to high noise levels daily, and many of them experience hearing loss as a result. Grain dryers, tractors, combines, livestock, chainsaws and firearms can all contribute to the problem. There is also evidence that exposure to pesticides and other chemicals increases their risk.
What You Can Do
- When purchasing new equipment, ask about sound levels and look specifically for quieter models.
- If possible, select equipment with enclosed cabs and enclosed operating areas to further insulate workers from noise.
- Routine maintenance can help reduce noise levels on existing equipment. Repair mufflers, replace worn parts and lubricate wherever possible.
- Identify and label areas where high noise levels are common and encourage workers to avoid those areas if they do not need to be there.
- Provide appropriate PPE designed to eliminate or reduce noise volume.
- Put administrative controls in place that limit daily noise exposures for individual employees.
Workers in the manufacturing industry are at additional risk of hazardous noise exposure. The CDC reports that approximately 46% of these workers have been exposed and 18% have hearing difficulty. A further 11% have tinnitus. Machinery, equipment, tools and vehicles can all contribute to a high noise level in manufacturing.
What You Can Do
- Mandate and provide appropriate PPE, especially noise reduction PPE. A stunning 24% of noise-exposed manufacturing workers report that they do not wear noise protection PPE.
- Use engineering and design controls such as barriers and isolation of exceptionally loud equipment to control volumes and exposure. Consider routing traffic to avoid unnecessary exposure.
- Consider modifications to equipment designed to reduce noise levels and ensure sound levels are criteria in the purchase of new equipment.
- Look for non-toxic or less toxic chemicals and insist on the use of gloves, eye protection and long sleeves when toxic chemicals are used.
- Post warnings in areas of high noise levels.
- Institute administrative controls that provide breaks and reduce exposure. Consider alternative employment for those suffering demonstrable damage to prevent damage from worsening.
- Educate employees regarding the risks of exposure, mitigating factors and ways to prevent hearing loss.