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Hearing Loss Among Workers
What's the Problem?
Work-related hearing loss is caused by exposure to hazardous levels of noise and/or solvents and metals. Hearing loss may occur after exposure to a single extremely loud noise or after repeated exposures at lower levels. Work-related hearing loss is irreversible but entirely preventable.
Who's at Risk?
Hearing loss, the most common occupational disease in America today, is the second most common self-reported occupational illness or injury. Approximately 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise on the job, and an additional 9 million are at risk from agents such as solvents and metals.
Occupational hearing loss can affect all industries and all workers, young or old, male or female. It can reduce the quality of life because of social isolation and unrelenting tinnitus (ringing in the ears). It impairs communication with family members, the public, and co-workers. It may diminish a worker's ability to monitor the work environment (warning signals, equipment sounds, etc.), and cause lost productivity and increased accidents resulting from impaired communication and isolation. And it can lead to expenses for workers' compensation and hearing aids.
Can It Be Prevented?
Yes. Occupational hearing loss is entirely preventable, although once it has occurred, it is irreversible. The use of ear plugs or ear muffs can significantly reduce the impact of exposure to hazardous levels of noise. Employers, purchasers, and equipment manufacturers can also purchase and produce "quiet" equipment which can eliminate the hazard.
The Bottom Line
Hearing loss can be prevented but it cannot be cured. To date, the public has no sense of urgency about this problem. Hearing loss may not appear to be an immediate threat to a worker's health, and it has no warning signs. By the time a loss in hearing is noticed, it is too late to do anything about it. An incorrect perception exists that hearing loss is just part of getting older. Hearing loss need not be part of the aging process.
- Juan has worked for 35 years in a job where he is around very loud engines all day. Lately, Juan has trouble understanding what people are saying to him and often mistakes words that sound alike. His doctor tells him the loud noises at work have taken their toll on Juan's hearing. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Juan's hearing loss. He must purchase hearing aids that can cost up to $1,500 per ear
- Steve, in his mid-20s, has played drums in a rock band since his early teens. His girlfriend complains continuously that he doesn't listen to anything she says; arguments escalate. A buddy asks Steve at the bar one night if he's having trouble hearing because he has to repeat everything. Finally, Steve has his hearing tested and learns he has some loss in one ear. The doctor warns him that frequent exposure to loud music and amplifiers with no ear protection will only result in more hearing loss as he gets older. Steve is disheartened; he has built his entire career around rock music. He learns there is a support group for musicians that may be able to help him deal with the problem.
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