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By Karen O’Hara
Compared to other occupations, workers in mining, construction, health care and social assistance have greater risk for hearing loss, but there is no industry in which the workforce is considered risk free.
Occupational hearing loss is still one of the most common – and preventable – work-related illnesses. Approximately 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work each year; 9 million are exposed to chemicals known to cause hearing loss (ototoxic agents). Hearing loss is associated with an estimated $242 million in annual workers’ compensation costs.
A newly released National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study is the first to look at 30 years of hearing loss trends by industry sector and time period.
Audiograms performed on 1.8 million workers between 1981 and 2010 show hearing loss prevalence (existing and new cases) for workers in all industries remained consistent at 20 percent. However, the incidence (new cases) and risk of incident hearing loss decreased over time, indicating some progress in hearing loss prevention efforts.
In addition to wearing hearing protection, factors that may have contributed to improved incidence rates include declines in cigarette smoking, which is a risk factor for hearing loss, and improved treatment of middle-ear disorders, researchers said.
The construction sector had the highest incidence of hearing loss during the time period studied (in five-year increments). Hearing loss incidence was significantly lower from 2006 to 2010 for every industry sector except mining, health care and social assistance.
According to findings from other studies cited by NIOSH:
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers in general industry to establish an effective hearing conservation program – including testing – when worker noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 dBA for an eight-hour period or 90 dBA over eight hours in the construction industry. Standards vary in some states.
OSHA-mandated hearing conservation programs require employers to measure noise levels; provide free annual audiograms, hearing protection and training to employees; and evaluate the adequacy of hearing protection unless changes to tools, equipment and schedules (engineering and administrative controls) are made to keep noise under PELs.
Because preventable loss continues to occur, some feel government standards are not protective enough and that what is really needed is introspection on the part of employers.
For example, an industrial hygienist who conducts hearing exams in Washington state recently suggested, “If all workers who suffered job-caused hearing loss filed workers’ comp claims, and the claims were actually settled for the true amount of damage caused to a person by hearing loss, employers would find it well worth the money to spend a bit on a fitting and training session for a worker with a standard threshold shift.” And that means going beyond handing out new ear plugs and having employees watch a short training video.
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