Are You Unaware Of Hearing Loss In The Workplace?

Australia’s Hearing Awareness Week officially commences this Sunday 3 March to Saturday 9 March, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation’s World Hearing Day, so we think it’s time get the conversation started about workplace hearing. With the upcoming week focused around raising hearing impairment awareness as well as communicating the ways you can protect your hearing, here’s everything you need to know.

When you think of hearing loss, you might dismiss it as a regular symptom of ageing, but the reality is that everyone is vulnerable to hearing loss. Hearing loss is caused by a wide variety of factors, for example, it can simply be present from birth. However, it can also occur later on in life, often due to environmental factors such as long-term exposure to loud noise. Hearing loss exists on a spectrum that ranges from mild, moderate, severe and profound. In some cases, it will be manageable and will minimally affect daily life. For others, it will be incapacitating.

Degrees of Hearing Loss

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There are approximately 3.55 million adults in Australia with some degree of hearing loss.

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Of the 3.55 million adults in Australia suffering from hearing loss, 66% have a mild degree, 23% have a moderate degree, and 11% have a severe or profound degree.

Workforce Health Assessors delivers hearing assessments as a part of our pre-employment medical services across all industries and workforces. We support industries in the implementation of best practices to provide a safe workplace. If you are interested in receiving a hearing assessment and recommendations for company-specific hearing solutions, contact us today!

Who Is Affected by Hearing Loss?

According to the Australian Government, “one in six Australians has some degree of hearing loss”, and with a large ageing demographic, this number is projected to increase to one in four Australians by the year 2050.

In addition to our ageing population, those who are regularly exposed to excessive noise are most commonly affected by hearing impairment. Long-term exposure to excessive noise can cause hearing loss among middle-aged people when it would not have otherwise occurred until old age. Workplace environments are a prevalent source of noise-induced hearing loss.

Consequences of Hearing Loss

Regardless of the cause or severity, we ultimately believe that it is important to understand the consequences and risk factors associated with hearing loss. On a social and psychological level, hearing loss can diminish your confidence because it negatively affects your ability to clearly and effectively communicate. In these circumstances, most people that are affected are too embarrassed to ask someone to repeat themselves. If the onset of hearing loss begins at birth, then it may be hard for infants or children to effectively grasp their primary language. It can also mean as adults they will have difficulty learning a new language.

The Science Behind Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can be categorised into three broad categories:

  1. Conductive;
  2. Sensorineural; and
  3. Mixed.

The human ear is divided into three parts: the outer, middle and inner ear.

The outer ear is the visible part of the ear. They are the ‘cups’ that collect the sound waves. The middle ear contains three tiny ossicles (bones) that convert the sound waves into vibrations to be delivered to the inner ear. Once these vibrations reach the inner ear, they are converted into neural impulses that are interpreted by the brain as sound.

When there is an obstruction to the flow of sound from the outer to inner ear, it is known as conductive hearing loss.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss is easy to recognise. Simply take your fingers and plug one or both of your ears. You’ll notice that the sounds around you become muffled, but still recognisable. For example, if someone is speaking to you and you have conductive hearing loss, you might need them to speak louder to compensate, or move to an area with less background noise.

The following factors can cause conductive hearing loss:

  • Earwax
  • Fluid build-up
  • Ear infections
  • Collapsed eardrum
  • Perforated eardrum
  • Bony lesions/benign growths on ear canal
  • Genetic malformations of the ear
  • Trauma

In addition, hearing loss is also caused by conditions affecting the inner ear (sensory) or auditory nerve (neural). Because the symptoms of sensory hearing loss and neural hearing loss are nearly indistinguishable, they are termed together as sensorineural hearing loss.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common form of hearing loss with over 90% of hearing aid users suffering from sensorineural hearing loss. Unlike conductive hearing loss, which describes an inability to effectively transmit sound waves from the outer to inner ear, sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the delicate hair cells (cilia) of the inner ear. When these cilia lose functionality, they are unable to convert the sound vibrations from the outer and middle ear into neural impulses for the auditory nerve to transmit to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss also occurs when there is damage to the auditory nerve itself, or in other words, the path that delivers the signal to the brain.

The following factors can cause sensorineural hearing loss:

  • Aging
  • Congenital defects
  • Long-term exposure to excessive noise
  • Disease/infections
  • Tumours
  • Head trauma
  • Acoustic trauma (e.g. loud explosion)
  • Ototoxic medication side effects

Sensorineural hearing loss goes beyond a mere reduction or muffling of sound, it also affects your ability to clearly hear and recognise speech. This sort of hearing loss is permanent and unresponsive to medical or surgical treatment. Even with hearing aids, sounds are still muffled, distorted and difficult to discriminate with sensorineural hearing loss.

Mixed Hearing Loss

When sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss are concurrent, it is termed mixed hearing loss. In this case, there might be damage to the outer, middle, and inner ear/auditory nerve. Workforce Health Assessors delivers hearing assessments as a part of our pre-employment medical services across all industries and workforces. We support industries in the implementation of best practices to provide a safe workplace. If you are interested in receiving a hearing assessment and recommendations for company-specific hearing solutions, contact us today!

Occupational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (ONIHL)

In Australia, Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is an issue that accounts for 37% of all hearing loss. Most NIHL is a result of recreational hobbies, or most notably, one’s occupation. According to the Australian Society of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgeons (ASOHNS), the workplace is one of the most common sources of NIHL. Despite such a substantial statistic, ONIHL is by far the most preventable kind of hearing loss by first-world standards.

So, which occupations are major risk factors for hearing loss?

  • Manufacturers
  • Construction workers
  • Farmers
  • Musicians
  • Pilots and aviation personnel
  • Gym teachers
  • Athletes
  • Emergency responders (e.g. paramedics and fire fighters)
  • Dentists
  • Military personnel
  • Entertainment/Night life staff

Consequently, it is no wonder that NIHL is more prevalent in men than women, as men are more inclined to work in industries and environments with long-term exposure to excessive noise. [Hear Net] cites that 60% of adults affected by hearing loss are male, and nearly half of them are of working age.

Worker’s Compensation Claims for ONIHL

Safe Work Australia reports that there is an average of 3400 successful worker’s compensation suits filed each year for Occupational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (ONIHL). However, because of the nature of hearing loss, it is often difficult to attribute the cause of someone’s hearing impairment to the work place. This means that these statistics most likely understate the extent of ONIHL.

Some factors that can contribute to understated statistics:

  • For various reasons, not everyone will make claims
  • Employees might fear their job security if they make a claim
  • Due to the nature of hearing loss, it is difficult to ascertain if it is work-related
  • Different districts have their own industrial deafness thresholds
  • It is difficult to identify certain high-risk industries (e.g. music and entertainment) for ONIHL given their low to non-existent rate of compensation claims
  • Data can only be gathered and analysed based on the industries that make the highest number of claims
High-Risk Industries for ONIHL

In some of the highest-risk industries, such as agriculture, many workers afflicted with NIHL might not be employees that fall under the purview of regional Work, Health and Safety legislation, as many are self-employed farmers.

According to the Parliament of Australia, “only around 54 per cent of the estimated 375,000 strong agricultural workforce are actually 'employees”

Of the agricultural employees, most of the workers are relatively young, and unfortunately hearing loss is harder to detect in younger people as there is a longer latency period. Additionally, rural regions have less access to hearing screening services, which cannot be conducted without professionals.

These statistical constraints suggest that while ONIHL is an alarmingly widespread issue, we still have yet to uncover the true prevalence and gravity of these issues.

However, further analysis of the workers’ compensation claims show that approximately 88% of the claims come from workers in three industries:

  1. Labourers and affiliates;
  2. Tradespersons and affiliates; and
  3. Production and transportation workers.

According to Safe Work Australia, “the three highest industry sectors affected by occupational hearing loss are the manufacturing, construction, transport and storage industries. The highest incidence rates were in mining; construction; and electricity, gas and water supply.”

Best Practices for Preventing Occupational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Given the easily-preventable nature of noise-induced hearing loss, it is necessary to ensure your employees receive audiometric testing both as a pre-employment assessment and ongoingly while employed. This is especially important among high-risk industries that require protective equipment for excessive noise, or those that involve exposure to ototoxic (ear-damaging) agents. Audiometric testing is not only important for minimising NIHL, it also determines how independently, effectively and safely an employee can work if he or she is determined to already have hearing loss.

Pre-Employment Audiometric Testing

Ideally, in high-risk industries for NIHL, employers should screen prospective employees to discover whether any pre-existing hearing loss exists and could be worsened by the work environment. Both employers and employees benefit from hearing screenings because it minimises health issues for the employee and liability issues for the employer.

Such screenings are beneficial to both parties because if screened prior to employment and found to have hearing loss, they can attribute it to another source, such as the employee’s previous occupation. This clears the prospective employer from liability while enabling the prospective employee to file a claim, rectify/minimise the matter and contribute to invaluable nationwide data and legislation on ONIHL.

In many high-risk industries for NIHL, hearing loss can cause critical safety errors while working. For example, pilots need adequate hearing abilities to receive commands from air traffic control, especially due to background noise from the flight and engine, and the static from the relatively poor ATC signal.

Therefore, it is important to test your potential and current employees regularly to ensure their hearing is 100% optimal for the role they work in. Employees with hearing impairments in such industries not only pose risks to themselves, but their co-workers.

Summary

Hearing loss does not discriminate. While many factors affect hearing loss, it can occur in children with congenital brain defects, young and middle-aged adults with long-term exposure to excessive noise, and the elderly.

One in six Australians suffer from hearing loss, a substantial statistic that points to specific sources and preventable factors, such as Occupational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. To date, every Australian jurisdiction has developed legislation to prevent or minimise NIHL in the workplace. However, the issue lies with enforcing the legislation. Simply, many employers are slow or uncooperative to investigate and implement hearing protection and screening services.

The 2008 National Hazard Exposure Worker Survey (NHEWS) conducted by Australia’s Safety and Compensation Council revealed that preventative hearing-loss training is strongly underprovided. Less than half of employees reporting ONIHL have received training on how to minimise work-related hearing loss.

In many cases, employees have been required to provide their own personal protective equipment, rather than the company/employer. As a result, many employees go without personal protective equipment, and therefore are subject to potential hearing loss.

Workforce Health Assessors delivers hearing assessments as a part of our pre-employment medical services across all industries and workforces. We support industries in the implementation of best practices to provide a safe workplace. If you are interested in receiving a hearing assessment and recommendations for company-specific hearing solutions, contact us today!