Noise induced hearing loss is now the most common occupational disease in North America.
According to Statistics Canada, more than one million adults across the country have reported a hearing-related disability. It was estimated that hearing loss costs the Canadian economy more than $10.6 billion each year and according to Heather Ferguson, President of the Hearing Foundation of Canada, actual numbers may reach as much as three million, as hearing loss is believed to be under reported.
The potential cost of hearing loss goes well beyond the simple WSIB dollar figures. It is a potential accident risk and a serious quality of life issue.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) can occur from ongoing exposure to noise levels 85dB or above. In its early stages, NIHL impairs our ability to hear high-pitch tones. For example, you may have trouble hearing birds chirping, a beeping alarm clock, or perhaps even a warning signal in the workplace which could lead to a potential accident. It also affects our ability to hear the “consonant” sounds of human speech, which help separate words into syllables. Without this ability, voices, particularly those of women and children sound muffled, as though talking with your hand over your mouth. And these high-pitch tones also provide the directional cues that help us locate the source of a sound. As the NIHL increases, it eventually spreads to the lower-pitch tones, and we begin to have trouble hearing men’s voices and many of the other sounds in our everyday life. People with this type of hearing disability often describe their lives as one of isolation, both at work and at home. They get confused and are unable to follow conversations in crowded, noisy places and find themselves being ridiculed by those around them as being “stupid”. And because they often have more trouble hearing women’s and children’s voices, they experience tremendous anxiety that affects their family life. The isolation they experience can lead to serious stress-related illnesses, withdrawal from the family, and a shying away from social activities.
NIHL is permanent. Fortunately, it’s also 100% preventable.
The problem with NIHL is that it is a very slow process. There is no blood, no pain, and often it takes years to manifest. For this reason it can often be difficult to convince people that anything is happening, After all, their hearing seems to be the same when they wake up as when they went to sleep. They eventually do notice a change, but by then, permanent damage has already been done.
Prevention: Establish a workplace Hearing Conservation Program
Most NIHL is due to over-exposure to high noise levels in the workplace, and it is the responsibility of the employer to prevent this over-exposure with a hearing conservation program. This does not simply mean giving them some hearing protectors and leaving them on their own. What type of hearing protector is appropriate? What is the appropriate noise reduction rating for the protectors? Do you know the actual noise level they will be used in? How will you ensure the hearing protectors will be worn properly (or at all)? Have you considered reducing the noise at the source? This could potentially eliminate the risk altogether. Maybe the cost of buying a quieter hand tool is less than the long-term cost of the hearing protectors. A comprehensive HCP will deal with all of these issues and ensure the long-term hearing safety of the workers. A comprehensive Hearing Conservation Program consists of the following elements:
- Noise Survey and Noise Dosimetry measurement
- Engineered noise control
- Hazard postings
- Hearing Protectors
- Baseline & annual hearing tests
- Hearing Safety Education and Training
- Annual program review
In a nutshell, you want to reduce noise where you can, provide hearing protection devices where you can’t, help the participants understand the program and how it benefits them, and check them regularly for hearing loss. A strong emphasis must be put on the educational components of the program. These will be the cornerstone of the program and will play a large part in the relative success.
Hearing testing is the only tool that can verify the success of your hearing conservation program.
Even with the best training, there will be some people that aren’t wearing their hearing protectors properly. This may or may not be intentional. The hearing tests are able to spot a developing noise induced hearing loss long before the patient is able to notice it. The same is true for other types of hearing losses, as well. This allows for follow up action to be taken at the earliest possible stage. It is strongly recommended that a professional, experienced Hearing Conservation Program service provider be utilized in the development & delivery of the program in order to ensure quality control and program success. Hearing safety benefits us all. Help ensure good hearing in the years to come by protecting your employees hearing now with a Hearing Conservation Program.