Most common workplace injury: Hearing loss

Critics say maximum level of noise exposure too low

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Kaiser Health News

Eight years ago, Jeff Ammon, now 55, began noticing a feeling of pressure in his ears every day after work.

Over the next months, when his symptoms progressed into a slight loss of hearing and sensitivity to noise, he became worried. Ammon, a construction worker for 32 years, eventually started wearing ear protection hoping this would address these complaints — but it was too late.

From that point on, sounds ranging from the hum of a lawn mower to normal tones of conversation caused a piercing, jabbing pain in his inner ear. He stopped working in 2011, when the pain became unbearable. He also hears ringing in his ears and experiences dizziness, both side effects of the auditory damage.

“It’s debilitating ... completely,” he said.

Ammon spent almost all of his working life surrounded by the loud noises of jackhammers, saws and air compressors. Now he avoids going outdoors, choosing instead to stay in his soundproof basement in Lebanon, Pa., and communicate with his doctor mostly through an online patient portal.

Ammon is not alone in suffering from workplace-related hearing loss. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the most common work-related injury with approximately 22 million workers exposed annually to hazardous levels of occupational noise.

Workers in the mining sector, followed by those in construction and manufacturing, are most likely to suffer from hearing impairment.

An estimated $242 million is spent on workers’ compensation annually for hearing loss disability, according to the Department of Labor.

In an effort to reduce these numbers, the Labor Department launched a challenge this summer called “Hear and Now,” in which it is soliciting pitches for innovative ideas and technology to better alert workers of hazardous noise levels.

But critics say that while these efforts might help, technology to reduce hearing injuries already exists.

They contend that the maximum level of noise exposure allowed before employers are required to provide sound-protection equipment is too low, and the regulations developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are outdated. For example, those regulations use sound level limits that don’t factor in the noise exposures that occur beyond the workplace — at restaurants, concerts and sporting venues — that can add to workers’ cumulative risks of harm.

OSHA will issue a request for information later this year about current regulations at construction sites to figure out if more stringent protections are needed and how companies are complying. The review may lead to an update to these rules, most of which date back to the 1970s.

Mark Cullen, a professor at Stanford University who explores workplace hazards, found in a study that the employees who suffer most from hearing loss were those who were working in jobs involving moderate noise levels instead of high-noise environments.

“At very high noise exposures, people very faithfully wear hearing protection and at low noise situations, people don’t,” he said.

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