Overview: Signs of Hearing Loss in Your Employees, and What You Can Do

Date: July 1, 2015 | Category: Hearing Protection

According to OSHA, for more than 25 years, hazardous noise-related hearing loss has been one of the cant_hear-earhighest-rated concerns in the US. About 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud noises at work or in leisure activities. Add to that the fact that NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) state that:

  • 4 million workers go to work each day in damaging noise
  • Ten million people in the U.S. have a noise-related hearing loss
  • Twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year.

…and you see that noise-related hearing loss is a major concern for safety managers. Since permanent hearing loss is—by definition—irreversible, It’s important to recognize the signs of hearing loss in your high-noise environment.

There are six distinct signs that you can keep an eye (or ear) out for:

  1. Difficulty in placing the direction of incoming sound
  2. Difficulty in participating in conversations on communication radios, safety headsets, and phones
  3. Missing audible alerts/alarms/tones
  4. Difficulty in hearing and understanding face-to-face conversations
  5. Listening to electronic devices (stereos, monitors) louder than normal
  6. Frequently asking people to repeat themselves

Any one of these can be a troubling sign, but if an employee is exhibiting more than one, you definitely have a noise problem on your hands. If you have a high-noise work environment and believe that this is the cause of the problem, you will want to take immediate action.

First, you should identify which of three types of hearing degradation has occurred:

  1. Acoustic Shock (or acoustic trauma) occurs as a result of a single extremely loud, sudden noise.
  2. Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears that manifests itself as hissing, buzzing, or humming.
  3. Loss of frequency perception occurs when someone has trouble hearing basic sounds, typically in relation to exposure to loud noise over a period of time.

If an employee is experiencing hearing loss, they might experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Dizziness
  • Tinnitus or ringing of the ear

We have a more comprehensive overview of hearing degradation here. There are seven degrees of hearing loss. You can check out our infographic which includes:

  •    Slight
  •    Mild
  •    Moderate
  •    Moderate Severe
  •    Severe
  •    Profound
  •    Anacusis

Next, it’s time to develop a hearing safety plan and look at taking action that will help prevent future hearing loss. A proper hearing safety plan incorporates the following: 

  • Hearing conservation programs, including regular monitoring of each potential hazardous condition on its own merit (no one-size-fits-all approach), and keeping it up to date
  • Selection and use of hearing protection devices (HPDs) that protect hearing in various environments (For more information on understanding OSHA’s standards for devices that can help your workers stay connected and communicate while protecting their hearing, click here)
  • Training of workers on safety issues related to hearing protection, and ensuring hearing protection use

Planning is straightforward, but implementation and adoption are other challenges entirely. A recent safety study showed that the single biggest issue safety managers are concerned with is employees’ failure to adhere to safety regulations. In fact, approximately 80% of job-related accidents were solely the result of exactly this. So what are some of the tools employers and safety managers find most effective in getting employees to adhere to hearing safety programs?

  • Make sure that employees are rewarded for adhering to safety guidelines, as opposed to focusing solely on the speed of work completed
  • Monitoring employees for adherence
  • Develop a company culture of safety and accountability
  • and more…

Once you have mapped out a hearing safety plan, and are prepared to deal with the roadblocks of employee adoption, you need to sell the program to senior management, both from a financial perspective as well as an operational one.

The costs associated with developing a hearing safety plan (and the accompanying safety gear) are clear to outline. What might not be so obvious when budgeting is the costs associated with doing nothing—and the resulting hearing loss.

In March of this year, we published information on the costs associated with hearing loss. There are 500,000 to 750,000 Americans with  “severe to profound” hearing loss, at a cost to society of $297,000 per individual.

Societal costs might not feel like they directly impact your business, but a legal claim against your business based on preventable hearing loss certainly is. According to AllLaw.com if an employee can prove that the employer has disregarded OSHA regulations and/or “fails to warn [the employee] about dangers from noise in the workplace” they may be able to file a lawsuit. The post goes on to note that, while most claims are covered by workers' compensation, sometimes lawsuits still occur. For example, in 2010, a paper mill was sued by more than 150 employees for “noise-related hearing loss”. 

Most likely tho, your business will be impacted on a number of levels indirectly by the hearing loss. In addition to the issues created by the conditions noted above, depression and isolation are common among those with hearing loss, according to the Hearing Health Foundation. Implementing a hearing safety plan will help you avoid these costs and more.

Do you have (or think you have) a hearing safety issue in your workplace? Are employees exhibiting any of the above signs of hearing loss? Have you tried to address this with management? What barriers have you experienced to solving this problem? Perhaps you already have a safety program in place. How often do you review it? What measures do you take to ensure that the plan is working?

For more information on how technology can help you help employees adhere to your hearing safety program, read our article on how you can help employees adhere to OSHA safety rules.

Do you have any questions about hearing protection and hearing loss?  Please feel free to contact one of our experts.