Workzone: Many may not realize effect of workplace noise

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Hearing loss is one of the biggest nonfatal dangers that workers face on the job, but many of them may not realize how significantly noise in the workplace affects their hearing.

Of the nearly 2,600 workers at a Midwest auto plant surveyed by public health researchers, 76 percent thought their hearing was excellent or good. However, tests revealed that 42 percent suffered hearing loss.

The gap between perception and reality is all the more unsettling because the companies where the workers surveyed are employed monitor their hearing regularly.

"Workers did not realize how much hearing loss they had even though these are workers who have their hearing tested every year," said Marjorie C. McCullagh of the University of Michigan School of Nursing, a co-author of the study. "They're kind of minimizing the problem in their own mind, which is unfortunate because that may result in them taking unnecessary risks with their hearing."

Of the 21,100 cases of hearing loss reported to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2010, 14,700 of them came from manufacturing plants, according to the latest OSHA data. The agency said there were 2.1 cases of hearing loss per 10,000 workers in 2010, the same rate reported for the previous year.

But OSHA officials caution that its statistics may underestimate the number of workers affected by health problems that develop over a long period of time, such as hearing loss or carpal tunnel syndrome. They say that's because employers are less likely to report them and more likely to report more traumatic injuries such as broken bones or cuts.

Moreover, linking hearing loss to work-related noise rather than other factors can be difficult.

"Your ears don't know whether the noise they're exposed to is a drill press at work, a lawn mower at home or music at a concert," Ms. McCullagh said.

Standards set by OSHA require employers to implement hearing safety programs once the noise level reaches 85 decibels. How loud is that? Ms. McCullagh said 85 decibels is the equivalent of standing within three feet of someone and having to raise your voice over the noise in order to be heard.

Once noise reaches that level, OSHA requires employers to provide ear plugs and take other preventive measures, Ms. McCullagh said. But she said that given all the health and safety issues the agency has to monitor, "I don't have any delusions that this is at the top of their list."

Large employers such as the automotive plant where the workers Ms. McCullagh and her colleagues surveyed are more likely to hire industrial hygienists who monitor noise levels, audiologists who conduct hearing exams and other safety staff who train workers in how to protect their hearing, she said. But only a small percentage of workers are employed by companies that provide those resources, she added.

Farm and construction workers and those employed by small businesses often cannot take advantage of these resources, she said.

Ms. McCullagh said the study shows that more needs to be done to educate workers about the threat workplace noise presents to their health. That includes employers providing more training and purchasing newer, quieter equipment as well as employees taking the proper preventive measures, she said.

"It comes down to personal responsibility for health," Ms. McCullagh said. "We should all take care of our hearing because it has so much to do with our quality of life."


Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941. First Published July 29, 2012 4:00 AM


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