Noise-induced Hearing Loss: an Underrated Workplace Issue

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woman with hearing problems

The British workforce faces plenty of hazards in the workplace, and some are less talked about than the others. One of these is noise-induced hearing loss.

NIHL can be permanent or temporary. Either way, it affects a person’s ability to perform their job and even reduces their quality of life. For businesses and employees to guarantee their safety, they need to know more about the condition and its severity.

What Causes NIHL?

Practically everyone who works is exposed to noise, and they need not be in the office at all times. Those who commute have to bear with the loud sounds of subway trains or honking of vehicles. They hear the cacophony of sounds from people and equipment on the road.

However, the ears can only take so much noise. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, the acceptable level of noise is 70 decibels and below. That is about the noise level in the workplace.

Meanwhile, city-traffic noise could already reach 80 to 85 decibels even when you’re in the car, said the CDC. The whirring of a washing machine could be about 70 decibels. A hammer pounding on a nail is loud to generate up to 140 decibels. A blast is at least 170 decibels.

Although some sudden loud noises, like an explosion, can already lead to considerable hearing damage, usually, NIHL develops over long-term exposure. It also implies that it can take years before the ears lose their ability.

How Can Noise Result in Hearing Loss?

ENT doctorThe ears have three major parts:

  • Outer
  • Middle
  • Inner

The outer ear is the part that receives the sound waves and directs it to the middle ear, which contains bones that create vibrations to push the sound to the inner ear.

The inner ear features hairs that receive these vibrations and then convert them into nerve impulses that the brain can interpret. The body’s command center then interprets the sound.

NIHL can affect any or many parts of the ear, although it is particularly damaging to the hairy cells. Loud noises can destroy them, and unfortunately, they cannot grow back.

How Serious Is It?

According to the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) data, at least 21,000 British workers had NIHL from 2018 to 2019. In 2018, the total new claims for deafness reached 55.

However, IIDB believed that the actual number could be higher. Many factors could have caused underreporting, such as cases that occurred beyond these periods or the lack of knowledge that affected workers can apply for compensation.

Hearing Link estimates that the problem impacts at least 10 million people. It could increase to 14.5 million by 2031 as the population ages. Note too that the risk of NIHL also increases with aging.

The direct cost for hearing loss was £450 million in 2010, but its effects can be more severe and personal. A 2018 research by Sue Archbold Ph.D., Brian Lamb OBE et al. showed that hearing loss could decrease a person’s ability to communicate properly and, in turn, their quality of life.

Some isolate themselves or limit their activities, and these negative changes can worsen the odds of developing anxiety and depression.

Best Practices in the Workplace

It is less probable for a workplace to eliminate noise, but business owners can undertake several steps to reduce the exposure, especially among older workers:

1. Invest in Proper Equipment

While not all types of work would need personal protective equipment (PPE), companies need to invest in the right one. Some examples include ear muffs for construction workers. They do not block out noise entirely but significantly reduces it, so the level is tolerable to the ears.

Some company owners or managers consider buying the supply outside the UK to reduce costs, but that can be problematic later. Getting the supplies right in the country ensures the equipment meets the standards.

2. Consider Routine Exams

The UK does not follow a single official assessment test for hearing loss, but workers can test themselves in many ways:

  • Online hearing tests
  • App-based assessments
  • Face-to-face tests with audiologists
  • Free or discounted hearing assessments available in pharmacies and opticians’ clinics

Many GPs can perform hearing exams, particularly for older adults, for free. Companies can also add hearing tests in their employees’ annual exams.

3. Adjust the Workplace

Businesses should strive to minimize noise as much as possible. These include improving insulation or creating barriers.

If they cannot do that, then at least modify the workplace for the employees’ sake. Older people, for instance, should work fewer hours in noisy environments.

Some things are unavoidable in the workplace, and noise is one of them. The next best step is to control them to protect the welfare and well-being of the employees continuously.

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