Question: What's one of the most common health issues in the workplace?
Answer: Hearing loss.
Occupational hearing loss is a widespread work-related illness. About 22 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels on the job every year.
The industry that's most affected by high workplace noise levels is manufacturing. That includes fields like: lumber, petroleum, coal, metal, rubber, plastic, paper, printing, machinery, food, furniture, fixtures, textiles, apparel and more.
Other industries that are at a high risk for occupational hearing impairment are: transportation, the military, construction, utilities, agriculture, mining and maintenance.
Repeated exposure to high workplace noise levels can cause permanent hearing loss that can't be undone. Once the delicate hearing cells inside the inner ear are damaged, they cannot be restored.
In addition to hearing loss, high levels of noise can decrease job performance and productivity, especially when tasks are complicated or involve multitasking. Noise hazards at work can make communication more difficult, decrease concentration and coordination and cause serious workplace accidents and injuries.
Hearing loss is associated with lower earning potential, higher healthcare costs and can add stress to the body and mind. Hearing impairment also increases the risk for other health issues like diabetes, dementia and depression.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends a limit of 85 decibels (dB) over eight hours. Noise exposure or decibels at or above this level are considered harmful and hazardous to hearing.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets limits on noise exposure in the workplace based on a worker's time-weighted average (dBA) over an 8-hour day. Whenever worker noise exposure is 85 dBA or above for an 8-hour period or 90 dBA or above for the construction industry, OSHA requires that employers offer a hearing conservation program.
The US Department of Labor estimates that around 34% of manufacturing workers are exposed to levels above 85 dBA. They also estimate that more than 800,000 American manufacturing employees are exposed to daily average noise levels between 95 and 100 dBA.
Noise-induced hearing loss is common, but it can go undetected because it takes years to develop. Usually family members are the first to identify it. Because hearing loss happens gradually over time, without pain or visible signs like blood loss or broken bones, it shouldn't be ignored as a legitimate health issue.
Good hearing is so important. It's essential for employees and employers to protect hearing before hearing loss begins.
Do you hear ringing in your ears or experience temporary hearing loss after you leave work? Do you have to shout to be heard by a coworker who's an arm's length away? If you answered yes, your workplace might have noise hazards.
A good rule of thumb is if you have to shout to speak to a person standing next to you, the noise levels are probably over 85 dB. If you have to move really close to each other to communicate, the noise levels are probably over 95 dB. Both levels are dangerous to your hearing.
Employers should identify and control hazardous noise levels in the workplace on a regular basis. Noisy machinery can be retrofitted, redesigned, enclosed, isolated or moved away from workers. Keeping up on maintenance of machinery also helps.
Hearing loss prevention and education should be available on the job. Workers should be fitted with hearing protection and trained on its correct use and care. Noise-hazard zones should have proper signage with extra ear protection available. Employee shifts can be limited to reduce exposure.
Practice safe hearing by always wearing earmuffs in designated areas. Find a quiet spot for breaks so you can give your ears a rest. Be an advocate for hearing loss education programs in the workplace.