The Shocking Data about Noise Induced Hearing Loss in the Workforce
While hearing loss is often attributed to natural ageing or the iPod generation’s exposure to loud music, hearing impairment due to noise at work is particularly prevalent. Have you ever seen a fire truck blasting through with full sirens and asked yourself how on earth those firefighters manage to stay sound? Or construction workers wielding a sledge hammer? Or military personnel in combat areas?
Hearing Loss Incidence
Approximately 30 million workers in the US are exposed to hazardous noise on the job. Audicus tried to compile the available data on the incidence of hearing loss in occupations where the average noise levels are above the 90dB safety limit – and the numbers were astounding. In manufacturing or even agriculture, workers are at least three times as likely to experience hearing loss when they are 50 years old– in other industries it’s up to six times!
Mind those Sirens, Bomb blasts and Squealing Pigs
In mining and construction, 2 out of 3 workers will experience hearing loss by the time they are 50. Most of it is due to the use of heavy equipment (think jackhammers and heavy drills), the drilling of rock and the confined work environment. What is particularly alarming is that the ability to hear well is essential to maintaining standards of safety – which, if jeopardized, can put workers in such extreme environments in a life threatening situation.
Personnel in the armed forces also face threatening noise levels, especially those in active duty: a recent study by the Deafness Research Foundation showed that more than 65% of returning combat troops from Afghanistan suffer from noise-induced hearing loss or sustained acoustic trauma.
Farmers are three times as likely to exhibit hearing loss as the average American. Exposure to damaging sounds starts at a relatively young age, such with the squealing of pigs, tractors, combines, grain dryers, chain saws and other equipment and tools.
For firefighters, hearing loss is the second most common work related ailment, mostly due to exposure from sirens, machinery and other tools.
One of the largest employers in the US, the manufacturing sector is also one of the noisiest. Therefore it is responsible for the highest number of occupational hearing loss cases. A study in Michigan showed that more than half of all cases of permanent hearing loss came from manufacturing.
No cure and no support
While substantial efforts were made to encourage the use of hearing protection in these industries, most notably in construction and manufacturing, the results are meager. Construction workers spend on average 70% of their time in hazardous noise environments yet they protect their ears less than 30% of the time. The incidence of hearing loss among military personnel has remained largely unchanged since the 1980s.
Noise induced hearing loss is permanent and irreversible; once you have it, you can only assist it with a hearing aid. The problem there is that many of those employed in “noisy” occupations belong to the lower income brackets and simply don’t have the means to finance the $3,000 to $7,000 for a pair of hearing aids. What is worse is that this relationship backfires into a spiral, where workers become less productive due to their untreated hearing impairment and face lower salaries and wages.
Military personnel are currently the only ones seeing a real and effective form of government subsidy for hearing aids via the Veterans Affairs (VA). The rest can only rely on very limited support through their industry trade bodies (e.g. $1,000 every 3 years from the New York transit authority) and some private insurance schemes. In fact, 60-70% of all yearly hearing aids expenditures are paid out of pocket by the patient!
While Audicus is trying to make hearing technology more accessible and affordable, there is still a long way to go.