Why do millions of workers still suffer from hearing loss?

By Jim Thompson

Whenever I hear people talking about the progress made in reducing noise, I am reminded that around the world millions of people are experiencing hearing damage every day at work. While much work has been done and the working environments for many have been improved significantly, there is much yet to do. The latest estimates are that 22 million people in the USA and 13 million people in Europe are overexposed every day. It is not a stretch to estimate over 50 million people are overexposed worldwide each day.

How do we prevent occupational hearing loss? We have been working on this problem for a long time and have not eliminated its health consequence. As noted above, there are still millions around the world overexposed to noise in their working environment.

While we have reduced the problem for some, there are still many people working in environments that will lead to significant permanent hearing damage as well as potentially other health problems. It is important to remember that we are not just talking about factory workers. Overexposure cases include those working in retail sales, warehouses, entertainment, construction, and many other environments. The point is that we have much to do to protect workers from this unnecessary hearing loss.

When I ask colleagues why this continues to occur, there are many answers. Unfortunately, they are not consistent and vary with the role of the individual responding. The employer’s noise control engineers often cite the lack of sufficient investment or priority from the employer or the resistance from employees who do not use hearing protection, improper use of protection, removal of controls when they hinder equipment maintenance, etc. There is a bit of truth with all these answers. To balance the perspective, many companies have been aggressive in control of the noise exposure of their workers and have implemented controls to reduce noise levels to below 85 dB(A) for exposures of 8 hours. Unfortunately, this is not universal.

Talking with company management, a common response is that there is no applicable technology or that noise control solutions will have too much impact on productivity or the bottom line. There still may be cases where these responses are accurate, but with modern noise control technology, this is seldom the case. More often there was some attempt made decades ago that failed, and any further efforts to implement controls have been prevented by this past failure. Modern analysis and control measures have eliminated many of the limitations that prevented effective solutions even a few years ago.

Talking to engineering consultants, I often hear excellent solutions were recommended but never implemented. When pressed for a reason why controls were not implemented, the response is that the employees did not like the solutions, management did not have funding, and other items got budget priority.

I am sure all are real possibilities. However, one of the lessons I learned working with NIOSH was that often the best solution is the least likely to be implemented. At first, I thought NIOSH was too concerned with employee reactions to potential controls and the impact of control on the standard work cycles. In the end, I learned that the best solution provides sufficient control while not adversely impacting the operator and his work. The best solution is what is practical for all parties-, not the most elegant engineering solution.

Clearly, there are many perspectives on why noise controls are not protecting every potentially overexposed worker. I think we need to do a better job educating workers and employers about the solutions available and the benefits of controls.  I would like to hear from you:

  • How can we do a better job protecting workers?
  • What are the problems/issues that must be overcome?
  • How can we change the status quo? Certainly, millions of workers being overexposed every day is not acceptable.