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Top tips to protect people’s hearing at work

‘To hear for life, listen with care’ especially at work, writes IOSH’s Dr Karen Michell.

Thursday (3 March) marks the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) World Hearing Day, which identifies exposure to noise as one of the seven key interventions to prevent hearing loss.

Occupational exposure to noise is a significant contributor to hearing loss and happens in almost all work settings to varying degrees. The severity is dependent on factors such as the frequency (Hz) of the noise, loudness (dB) and duration of exposure. This can be exacerbated outside of work, for example, by going to nightclubs or hobbies such as DIY. Other contributing factors may include ageing, some illnesses and diseases, as well as some medications.

Poorly controlled workplace exposures and the lack of training provided to workers can result in noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), which is the world’s fifth leading cause of disability adjusted life years (DALYs) globally.

DALYS refer to the number of years of full health lost due to disability and NIHL represents a total of 8.16 million or 9.1 per cent of all DALYS.

Prevention is the key – for which the employer and worker have dual responsibility.

NIHL is a permanent loss of hearing and continued exposure will cause further deterioration. Managers have been heard to say they would put a worker with NIHL in the noise zone, as they have already lost their hearing, but this should not happen. Prevention of further loss should be a priority.

Hearing loss is insidious, and it can take 10 years before an individual identifies a problem and seeks help. Once diagnosed, it is essential that any further loss is prevented to preserve hearing and quality of life and, by association, limit the degree of disability. Exposure to excessive noise in the workplace can be controlled and the incidence of NIHL reduced through concerted efforts by both the employer and workers.

Top tips for employers

  • Conduct noise surveys, compile noise maps and communicate these to the workers so they are clear on where the risks lie.
  • Prevent exposure at source, ie enclose machines rather than rely on the use of hearing protection devices. A three decibel drop in noise halves the impact on hearing health making this small change significant in terms of hearing loss.
  • Ensure workers are provided with the correct hearing protection devices where needed, train on the correct usage and enforce usage.
  • Educate workers on the risks of exposure to noise and the impacts it may have on their quality of life, ie impair communication.
  • Offer better protection to workers identified with hearing losses, ie customised hearing protection, to prevent further deterioration, especially in the early stages. They should be monitored more regularly and, if loss continues, consideration given to moving them out of a noise zone.

Top tips for workers

  • Early warning signs are subtle and need to be actioned earlier rather than later. These include ringing in the ears, inability to hear soft sounds, muffling of speech and other sounds, trouble understanding conversation, having to concentrate while listening and the need to turn up the volume on devices. Speak to your occupational safety and health (OSH) professional if you are concerned.
  • Familiarise yourself with the noise zones at work and comply with all legal instructions provided by your employer, ie wearing hearing protection in a noise zone.
  • Participate in hearing screening tests, so you know how you are being affected by noise.
  • Use your hearing protection correctly and, if damaged or misplaced, ensure prompt replacement. Raise any concerns or problems with the OSH professional in your workplace.
  • Manage your environmental exposure where possible to further protect your hearing health, ie use hearing protection at home when using noisy tools and equipment.

The prevention of hearing loss and future disability is dependent on the actions taken today. Both employers and workers need to take responsibility to protect hearing and prevent hearing losses. Take care today so you can hear tomorrow.

Dr Karen Michell
Research Programme Lead (Occupational Health)

Resources

  1. Occupational Health toolkit – noise
  2. The Health and Safety Executive - noise at work

Bibliography

WHO/ILO. 2021. WHO/ILO joint estimates of the work-related burden of disease and injury, 2000-2016: global monitoring report. 2021, World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization: Geneva. p. 92.

 

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Ali Barlow
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