When you’re at work, you ideally just want to focus on your job. It shouldn’t be your responsibility to make your workplace a safe working environment. It’s true — health risks should be the last thing on an employee's mind.
When most people hear ‘occupational health risks’ their thoughts jump to incidents involving heavy machinery or a lack of specialist equipment training. However, damage to your hearing is one of the most problematic and widespread occupational health issues in the world.
Staggeringly, about 24 percent of hearing difficulty amongst U.S. workers is caused by occupational exposures. As if this isn’t enough, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has reported that 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year. An unknown number are exposed to ototoxicants (a type of chemical that damages portions of the human ear upon exposure) although the figure is believed to be high.
Why Do People Suffer Hearing Loss from Work?
Occupational hearing loss (OHL) occurs for two concerning reasons: workers are often exposed to dangerous levels of loud noise or ototoxic chemicals (which can damage delicate structures in the ears).
Noise is dangerous at 85 decibels or higher or if a person has to raise their voice to speak with someone an arm’s length away. Lots of noises are louder than this, meaning there are many opportunities for sound to cause work-related hearing loss.
Ototoxic chemicals are worrying because they can cause hearing loss themselves, but they can also make the ear more vulnerable to the damaging effects of loud noise. These chemicals include solvents (styrene, trichloroethylene, toluene), asphyxiants (carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide), nitriles (3-Butenenitrile, cis-2-pentenenitrile, acrylonitrile), metals and compounds (mercury compounds, lead, organic tin compounds), and pharmaceuticals (certain antineoplastic agents).
Jobs With Risks of Work-Related Hearing Loss
The World Health Organization cites particularly problematic sectors in which this dangerous noise threshold might be exceeded as agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing and utilities, transportation, and the military.
These are broad areas, and any job that requires you to use power tools or operate loud machinery puts you at risk of developing work-related hearing loss if you’re not provided with sufficient hearing protection.
Workplaces such as bars, nightclubs, and gig venues which are often staffed by young adults play very loud music as part of their allure to a younger demographic. These venues, where loud music is practically a necessity, create the perfect environment for noise-induced hearing damage to take place.
How Your Employer Should Help
Employers should devise strategies to minimize their employee’s exposure to loud noise as much as possible. These might include upgrading equipment and machinery to quieter, more effective models, reorganizing the workspace, and planning the shift or task rota to ensure no one person is working in a noisy environment for hours on end.
If you're hard of hearing, they might be able to implement emergency notification systems in the workplace for your safety and provide you with an Assistive Listening Device (ALD).
They should also provide their employees with relevant noise safety training and suitable ear protection, whether this is earplugs or earmuffs.
Ways to Protect Your Hearing at Work
You can protect your hearing at work in a few ways.
As mentioned, your employer is meant to provide you with hearing protection, but they often fail to fulfil this legal obligation. Always have a backup pair of earplugs handy at work (these could be disposable foam earplugs or custom-molded earplugs) so you’re never caught off-guard.
Also, if you monitor the times when you’re exposed to loud noise, you can present this to your employer to help negotiate the provision of more safety precautions.
If you can, try to follow your own intuition and take breaks when working in a noisy area (at least five minutes out of every hour). You shouldn’t be exposed to a level that amounts to more than 85 decibels (dBA) for over 8 continuous hours.
Can You Get Compensation for Work-Related Hearing Loss?
If you have suffered from occupational hearing loss, you might be entitled to up to 150 weeks of compensation determined by your average weekly wage and a few other details.
Find out more about how you could claim for work-related hearing loss.
How Having Hearing Loss Could Affect You at Work
In the U.S. hearing loss is the third-most common chronic physical condition amongst adults with about 12% of the U.S. working population already experiencing hearing difficulty.
More than one in ten is a lot of people to be struggling with hearing problems, and it’s bound to affect their working life.
Although the extent of its limitations will depend on the sector you work within and the company that you work for, it's undoubtedly harder to work with a diminished functioning of one of your senses. Not only are you likely to find it harder to hear people and machinery around you, but it can strain communications with your colleagues as you might find yourself too embarrassed to ask for them to repeat themselves or to ask for assistance.
Your Rights if You Have Hearing Loss (Disabilities Act)
Not everyone with a medical condition is protected from workplace discrimination. To be protected, you must be qualified for the job and have a disability (as defined by the law).
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you have a disability if you “have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning, or operation of a major bodily function)”. Here it states clearly in writing that if you have a hearing impairment you’re granted certain disability rights.
If you happen to have a hearing impairment, your employer must make reasonable accommodations at work for you. That is unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for your employer.
This might include, for example, providing a reader or interpreter if you are blind or hearing impaired. The EEOC specifies that reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment” suggesting that you’ll be able to access all the support you need to help you fulfil your role.
Your employer may not be so obliging but stand your ground. You have these rights in law and they should respect your requirements. Don’t suffer with your work-related hearing loss — there’s help available!
Get Regular Hearing Tests
If you have been diagnosed with hearing loss, it’s still important to get regular hearing tests. This is because by getting a few tests over time, you and your audiologist will be able to compare your data over the years and take a close look at how your hearing ability has changed.
This can help indicate whether you need to revise your treatment, modify the settings on your hearing aid, or get a new one. This might also alert you to special adjustments that could benefit you at work.
To learn more about noise-induced hearing loss, see our other blog articles.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: