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This month, GP Alice Fitzgibbon talks about hearing loss related to noise at work.
Lots of people work in loud environments or with machinery and tools that make a lot of noise. You might never have thought it was an issue, but it could be affecting your hearing long term and is a cause of permanent deafness. With the right safety measures in place there is no need for it to happen to anyone.
Occupation related hearing loss is a big problem in the UK. As many as 2 million people are thought to be affected and it is the most reported occupational condition. Workers affected by hearing loss are more likely to struggle at work, be forced into early retirement or be unemployed. With severe hearing loss, you may be five times more likely to develop dementia. Working in industries such as construction, manufacturing, the military or the music industry, give the biggest risks for hearing damage at work.
Our hearing is one of the five senses we use to interact with and make sense of the world around us. Experiencing hearing loss can be really disabling as it can make everyday interactions more difficult. Hearing other people speaking, keeping up with conversations, using the telephone and just generally being aware of what is happening around us is more challenging with hearing loss. These difficulties may be felt particularly at work but also in everyday life.
Noise at work can cause hearing damage that is permanent. It might be gradual due to noise exposure over time, but it could also be sudden if you were exposed to an episode of extremely loud noise (eg, an explosion). Loss of hearing is not the only problem caused by excessive exposure to noise. People may also develop tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears), which is a distressing condition that can be difficult to manage. Tinnitus is associated with difficulties with sleeping and both tinnitus and hearing loss are associated with depression.
So, who is at risk? The Health and Safety Executive suggest anyone who answers yes to any of these questions about noise in their workplace is at risk of hearing loss:
- Is the noise intrusive for most of the working day?
- Do you have to raise your voice to have a normal conversation when about 2m apart for at least part of the day?
- Do you use noisy powered tools or machinery for over half an hour a day?
- Do you work in a noisy industry – eg construction or woodworking (among others)?
- Are there noises because of impacts – eg hammering, explosive sources, such as cartridge-operated tools?
- Do you have muffled hearing at the end of the day, even if it is better by the next morning?
Under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, UK employers have a duty to protect workers from hearing damage by determining noise levels and performing risk assessments. The regulations oblige employers to give their employees hearing protectors if they are likely to be exposed to daily or weekly average noise levels equal to or more than 80decibels. Actions that may be taken depending on the levels of noise may be to:
- Make changes to control the noise exposure by engineering it out, eg fitting a silencer
- Change the work pattern or the layout of the workplace – not just rely on hearing protectors
- Provide the quietest machinery that will do the job
- Issue hearing protection (a selection, so workers can choose a type that suits them)
- Send workers for regular hearing checks
- Provide training and information
- Consult with workers and their representatives
Hearing protection only protects hearing if it is worn! So, as an employee it is important you also take steps to protect yourself by using following any noise control measures put in place and by correctly wearing any ear protection you are given. When this is provided, you should be trained in how to use it and look after it. Hearing protection should be worn all the time you are doing noisy work, and when you are in hearing protection areas. Taking it off even for a short while means that your hearing could still be damaged.
So, why is this entirely preventable condition still an issue? It is an issue as ear protection is not being provided and/or worn consistently. And it’s understandable why – by blocking out all the noise you end up with the same issue as if you were deaf! It’s harder to do your job properly as you can’t hear things you need to or interact with others as well. These factors can impact on safety as well especially on busy sites with heavy machinery in operation. This is why more work needs to be put into the development of improved hearing protection devices.
For now, it’s important to work with what is available and use it consistently to get the benefit. Working should not cost you your ability to hear so if you have any concerns speak to your employer and get checked out!
For further information on hearing loss from the NHS visit Hearing loss – NHS (www.nhs.uk).