Comments on an article by S. N. Kales et al., entitled Medical surveillance of hazardous materials response fire fighters: a two year prospective study (Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 39, pages 238 to 247; see NIOSHTIC record NIOSH- 00236437), were presented. Fire fighters were often exposed to high levels of noise. In the two year prospective study, hearing loss in fire fighters was recorded through baseline and periodic audiometry. Although hearing losses were not severe enough to warrant the reassignment of fire fighters, the hearing losses did indicate the potential for more serious hearing impairment in the future, provided that the current noise exposures continued. The use of preventative measures was recommended to reduce the risk of hearing impairment among fire fighters. However, the authors of the two year prospective study considered hearing protective devices to be inappropriate for fire fighters, based on the theory that such devices could jeopardize the safety of fire fighters. Yet hearing protective devices were an integral part of hearing conservation programs for fire fighters. Using hearing protective devices, such as earplugs, earmuffs, and modified communication devices, only while in the vicinity of the major noise exposure sources, including sirens, air horns, engines, and radios, did not interfere with safety in a fire or hazardous materials incident. This approach proved successful in several fire departments in the United States and Canada. The author concludes that hearing protective devices should not be disregarded as safe, important hearing conservation tools for fire fighters. A response by S. N. Kales et al. was presented.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, Hazard Evaluation and Technical Assistance Branch, Industrial Hygiene Section, 5555 Ridge Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45213