By Team EarPeace
Hearing loss in the workplace is on the increase. But just how frequent is it and what steps are being taken to prevent noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace?
According to the CDC, hearing loss affects approximately 12 percent of the US workforce, with almost 1 out of every 4 cases being attributed to exposure to occupational noise. Yet despite constantly evolving standards delivered by OSHA, many workers may be entirely unaware of the role that background noise can play in their hearing. Especially in jobs that may not have any emphasis on hearing health, like EMS workers and firefighters exposed to sirens.
Current OSHA standards maintain that the acceptable threshold for noise exposure in the workplace to be no more than an average of 85 dbA during an average eight hour shift, additionally mandating that employers implement a hearing conservation program when noise levels veer close to a permissible level. To give you a rough idea of just how that level is measured, both subways and loud conversations less than three feet away actually exceed OSHA’s threshold of permissible noise. Ambulance sirens range from 110 to 129 dB. 45% or more of EMS providers and firefighters have mild to moderate hearing loss.
While OSHA does require employers to supply hearing-safety measures to workers as part of their Occupational Safety and Health Standards, an estimated $242 million continues to be spent each year in workers compensation claims for hearing loss disability, while the Hearing Loss Association of America has reported that some 60 percent of hearing loss cases experienced in the US may likely be the result of noise exposure in the workplace.
It’s a sobering number. But it’s not just high risk environments which are the culprit.
Is Hearing Loss Considered a Disability?
When the Americans with Disabities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, it was initially designed to bar individuals with physical and mental impairments from discrimination in both the workplace as well as increase accessibility for services which many Americans take for granted. But while the ADA contains explicit stipulations protecting the rights of individuals with both total and partial hearing impairment, the definition of workplace and public accessibility has shifted significantly since 1990, with one recent example being a 2020 US District Court case brought against video conferencing platform Zoom citing increased captioning fees as a violation of ADA and state law.
Yet individuals with hearing impairments other than total and partial deafness fall under the ADA definition of disability only if they can demonstrate it limits major life activities. Individuals living with tinnitus may require specialized protective gear, but the ADA’s determination doesn’t necessarily include any effects resulting from a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Equal employment opportunity law prohibits companies with over 15 employees from asking specific questions to determine the extent of your disability, nor are you legally required to report any existing hearing loss. However, that same law requires employers to provide necessary accommodations for new hires with reported disabilities.
As early as 2003, the CDC predicted that between 63 and 81 percent of total lifetime care costs of individuals with hearing loss would be the result of indirect costs associated with lost wages and occupational disadvantages. Yet what they didn’t predict were indirect costs also associated with occupational noise exposure. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine indicated that of the 25 percent of US workers routinely exposed to high noise levels, 28 percent also experienced elevated cholesterol levels while 24 percent were diagnosed with hypertension—suggesting a further link between work-related hearing loss and increased susceptibility for heart failure and stroke.
Hearing Loss Assistance in the Workplace
While many state vocational rehabilitation programs also include off site hearing loss therapy, determination of eligibility depends on state requirements as well as the severity of each particular case. And the need for assistance can be frequently greater than available resources, with productivity in the workplace suffering as an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide experience hearing loss symptoms that remain untreated.
Workplace-related hearing loss isn’t confined to the manufacturing, aviation or construction industries. The current trend towards open plan office spaces designed to facilitate collaboration can actually impede communication for individuals with hearing impairments even with background noise levels as low as 30 dBA.
But open plan offices have additional drawbacks for undiagnosed employees. The reliance on digital communication platforms for non-remote workers has led many to develop their own methods of drowning out background noise; most notably by personal headphones. Yet listening to music at a level higher than 90 dBA for more than an hour can bring about hearing damage, and many of us spend well over that amount of time with our headphones on! There’s a wide range of affordable and effective protective listening equipment available on the market in 2021, from noise cancelling ear plugs to smart AI wireless Bluetooth technologies which reduce background noise to a comfortable level without sacrificing two way communication.
Barriers to communication in customer service can also be minimized by assisted listening devices and systems, including:
- Amplified and captioned telephones designed to increase high-pitch sounds and provide real time text captioning.
- Hearing aid compatible smartphones and telecoils which amplify both external sounds as well as phone signals.
- Hearing loops which transmit sound through a specially installed wireless system directed into the telecoil of a hearing aid or cochlear transplant.
Better Living Through Better Hearing Breakthroughs
Most employers can’t afford to violate OSHA and ADA regulations. But it’s not just the fear of legal liability that motivates equal accessibility and safety standards in the workplace, but a more diverse workforce and the need for equitable representation. The World Health Organization recently estimated that some 700 million cases of hearing loss may be preventable, and there’s no reason to doubt that figure will increase without the widespread adoption of technological and medical breakthroughs by all industry segments.
Hearing loss doesn’t just diminish our physical health. It diminishes our emotional well-being. It diminishes our relationships. It can diminish our quality of life. It can diminish our work. And ultimately it can affect all of us. Hearing loss is no longer a question of age or heredity, but an all pervasive threat in all aspects of our lives. The sooner we can address it, the sooner we can act. And the sooner we act, the sooner we elevate our lives—individually and collectively.