The Centers For Disease Control came out with a startling report this month. A CDC survey on hearing found that one out of every five Americans in their 20’s have some hearing loss. Since hearing generally deteriorates with age, evidence that so many your adults already have hearing loss makes it a bit of a time bomb for the future.
The CDC also found two other significant trends. The first is that fully a quarter of the people surveyed who said they had good to excellent hearing actually had some hearing loss, meaning that we can’t exactly “trust our ears” to tell us when we have hearing loss. Gradual changes may not be apparent to us.
The second is that, while workplace noise may be a factor, noise away from work is increasingly the problem. As the survey says, “About 53% of people ages 20-69 who have hearing damage from noise report no on-the-job exposure.”
We live in a noisy world and some of that noise hits the high decibel levels that can damage hearing. At 90 dB a leaf blower can damage hearing after a couple of hours. At 100 dB, the noise in a sports stadium can damage nearing in 14 minutes. In 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs fans hit a Guinness Book of records high of 142.2 dBs and bragged about it:
That is like listening to a particularly loud siren and paying for the privilege of hearing it.
When we look at away-from-work hearing loss, experts are particularly concerned about the earphones that every third person you pass on the street is wearing. The first in-ear headphones went on the market in 2982. Apple’s earbuds came out in 2001. That means those young adults in their 20’s have had access to headphones for their entire lives. The highest volumes may be around 105 dBs, meaning that after a quarter of an hour or so, they may impact hearing loss. How many people do you know who keep them in their ears for hours at a time?
So why is this a workplace issue? The main reason is that it makes the effort to control damage in the workplace more complex and difficult to solve. OSHA expects companies to have hearing conservation programs if workers are exposed to more than 85 dBs over an average 8-hour day (or a time-weighted average). Employees are tested first for a baseline audiogram and then retested every year to measure deterioration. If more and more workers are experiencing hearing loss, as the CDC survey indicates, that makes it harder and harder for companies to determine if their workplace hearing conservation program is failing or workers are damaging their hearing when they leave.
To put it in perspective, if I come to work and suddenly say my back hurts, it makes a big difference whether the injury was entirely work-related or whether turning that fallen tree in my back yard into firewood had something to do with it. So what if I cut wood with a chainsaw all weekend and then went into work? Does that impact company hearing programs and the exposure the company has?
The other issue is the use of headphones at work. If my Gen-X’er listens to tunes on his i-phone all day, is that a work-related condition? What if the workplace is slightly noisy and he keeps turning up the i-phone volume to drown out the background noise. You can just hear the lawsuits coming now (if you haven’t already started to lose your hearing).
This is one of those issues that, even if it doesn’t occur in the workplace, employers should watch carefully. Review your conservation plan. Ask your occupational medicine advisers how you to address risk from outside hearing loss. Above all, help educate your employees about the risks they face both at home and at work. Contact us if you need more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The CDC has a good video that you might want to show at your next safety meeting: