Hearing Loss in the Workplace: Is Your Job Damaging Your Hearing?
An estimated one million Australian workers are exposed to excessive noise at their workplace. But hearing is delicate and loud noise can cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Both conditions are preventable. To find out if your job puts your hearing in danger, and what you can do about it, continue reading.
Safeworks Australia states that “there were about 16 500 successful workers’ compensation claims involving permanent impairment due to noise” between 2002 and 2007. If you are exposed to loud noise at your job, too, you must have regular hearing tests and protect your hearing as best you can.
Labourers, tradespersons, intermediate production and transport workers are amongst the most affected group of people. If your audiologist diagnoses you with occupational hearing loss, you may be able to claim compensation yourself.
Your Hearing and the Effects of Workplace Noise Exposure
How does your hearing work?
Our ears are made up of:
- Outer ear: Pinna (ear) and ear canal.
- Middle ear: 3 small bones (ossicles) and the eardrum.
- Inner ear: Hearing (cochlear) and balance organs.
These three parts work together allowing us to hear.
Sound is funnelled down the ear canal by the pinna and hits the eardrum, causing the eardrum and 3 small bones to move. This then sets the fluid in the inner ear into motion, causing the hair cells to move. Sound is turned into electrical impulses and sent to the brain.
Loud noise can damage hearing by affecting the hair cells in the inner ear. When there is loud noise exposure these hair cells can die and a permanent hearing loss can occur. This is sensorineural hearing loss. This damage also results in tinnitus. Tinnitus occurs when people hear sound in the ears or the head when no sound is present.
The cochlear has these hair cells along its length (top to bottom) and each is programmed to a different pitch. Hair cells at the bottom of the cochlear are programmed to high pitch sounds (e.g. birds chirping). Hair cells at the top of the cochlear are programmed to low pitch sounds (e.g. bass guitar).
Noise related hearing loss initially affects the high pitches on a hearing test as these are at the bottom of the cochlear and the ones first damaged. It is important to have a hearing test to determine if you have this loss.
What is Occupational Hearing Loss?
Occupational hearing loss is defined as a hearing deficiency caused by loud noise exposure or exposure to chemicals in the workplace. Loud noise can damage the fine hair cells in your inner ear. If these cells are damaged, they cannot be regenerated. Hearing impairments, in that case, are often permanent.
Occupational hearing loss also includes tinnitus. Tinnitus occurs when your brain no longer receives sound stimulation. Your brain compensates by creating its own internal noises, audible as ringing, buzzing, whooshing or clicking sounds. If you are experiencing symptoms of hearing loss, a hearing test can determine whether or not you have a noise-related hearing loss and tinnitus.
There are many occupations that put employees at an increased risk of suffering from hearing loss as a result of noise exposure. Some of these include:
- Farming/Agriculture: Loud noise from tractors, power tools, and machinery.
- Mining: Loud noise from using drills, excavating, blasting, operating plants.
- Manufacturing: Loud noise from machines.
- Construction: Loud noise from power and other tools (e.g. hammers) etc.
- Entertainment/Music: Loud noise from instruments or loudspeakers.
- Carpentry: Loud noise from power tools and other tools (e.g. hammers) etc.
- Military: Loud noise from live fire, explosions, and aircraft noise.
Occupational hearing loss and resulting tinnitus are completely preventable.
Workplace Hearing Regulations
Protecting your hearing is a team effort. There are many things workplaces can and must do to prevent occupational hearing loss and protect you from noise exposure. Legislation currently exists in Australia to keep employees safe from both sudden loud noises and continuous loud sounds in the workplace.
Workplace regulations include:
- Sudden loud noises:
People should not be exposed to any sudden loud noises louder than 140 decibels (dB). If they are their hearing can be harmed instantly
- Continuous loud noises:
People should not be exposed to any continuous loud noises louder than 85dB over 8 hours. As the sound level increases the amount of time spent in the environment seen as safe halves.
Hearing Tests Can Detect Hearing Loss Early
Workers that are exposed to loud noise must have regular hearing tests. The frequency of hearing tests depends on the type of work and noise exposure, as well as their hearing health history.
- Workers with normal hearing and no further symptoms may have yearly hearing tests.
- Workers who have previously been diagnosed with a hearing deficiency or related symptoms may have a hearing test every 6 months.
- In some cases, some workers may have a hearing test every 3 months to monitor their hearing.
Most workplaces conduct hearing screenings instead of hearing tests, as they are a quicker and simpler way to detect hearing loss.
If a hearing impairment is detected, you will have a more comprehensive assessment with an audiologist, that includes the following steps:
- Case history: Covers your ear/hearing history (including tinnitus) and noise exposure history.
- Otoscopy: The audiologist will look in your ears to check the ear canals and eardrums are healthy.
- Immittance testing: Your middle ear health will be tested using a small probe in the ear canal. You will feel a puff of air and hear loud beeps.
- Hearing test: You will hear some beeps through headphones and be asked to press a button when you hear one.
- Speech Testing: You will hear short words through headphones and be asked to repeat them.
- Explanation of results: Your audiologist will explain the results to you.
After your hearing test, a report will be sent to your employer. If the results of the hearing test suggest you need further medical intervention or hearing aids it will be reported on.
Making Compensation Claims
- The process of making a compensation claim for hearing loss often involves your employer conducting a hearing screening at the workplace. If this indicates a ‘fail’ result then they will book you in for a hearing test at an audiology clinic.
- Following the hearing test, your audiologist will consider the results and case history and determine whether noise exposure was the likely cause of the hearing loss. They will then calculate the percentage of hearing loss to determine the ‘amount’ of hearing loss for compensation purposes. Those with a binaural (both ears) hearing loss of 6 per cent or greater are entitled to hearing aids. Those with a binaural hearing loss which meets a higher percentage may also be entitled to a lump sum.
- If your audiologist determines you would benefit from hearing aids (based on the hearing test) and you want to proceed, a claim can be lodged. The audiologist will need to submit paperwork to lawyers to get the process started. Your audiologist will also send a report of the hearing test including recommendations to the insurance company. They will send a quote along with this. You will need to await approval of the quote before you are fitted with hearing aids.
- Once approved you will be fitted with hearing aids. All repair/maintenance and batteries are covered by the insurance company. You will need to attend for a yearly review.
Preventing Occupational Hearing Loss
Prevention is far better than treatment. As mentioned before, this type of hearing loss is 100 per cent preventable and so regular hearing tests are needed. It should be the goal of workplaces to prevent occupational hearing loss.
The responsibility should not be shifted on to the employee. Workplaces can make sure their noise levels are safer and they can do this in a number of ways:
- Purchasing quiet equipment/machinery to ensure noise levels are not unsafe
- Administrative controls to reducing the amount of time people spend in noisy environments
- Remove the loud noise where possible, e.g. removing a piece of equipment or machinery
- Lowering the amount of noise by substituting a process, e.g. using a press versus a hammer
- Limiting the number of people exposed to the noise by using sound-absorbing panels/partitions around noisy equipment/machinery
- Ensuring workers have regular hearing tests
As an employee, you can do a few other things to ensure you are safe in the workplace. This includes:
- Making sure you are using hearing protection when supplied by your employer
- Learning the proper use of hearing protection
- Ensuring that you attend all hearing tests
In a Nutshell
Many working Australians are exposed to excessive noise in their workplace, making regular hearing tests important. Workplace regulations protect employees from unsafe noise levels. Despite this, some workers may still suffer from occupational hearing loss. It is vital that workers undergo regular hearing tests to monitor their hearing health.
Hearing is intricate and loud noise can cause hearing loss and tinnitus. Both of which are entirely preventable. So don’t take your hearing for granted.
Schedule an appointment with an Attune Audiologist who can diagnose any hearing loss you may have. Book your appointment today to take charge of your hearing and improve your quality of life.