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Hearing Loss: America’s Most Common Workplace Injury

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Workplace injuries come in various shapes and forms, from a pulled muscle lifting heavy boxes to catastrophic injury at a construction site. America’s workers are at risk of personal injury in virtually every industry. Federal and state workers’ compensation laws serve to protect injured workers, covering their medical costs and other related losses. Unfortunately, workers’ compensation cannot take back the damages a workplace injury inflicts. One such irreparable damage is America’s most common workplace injury – hearing loss.

Examining Hearing Loss in American Workers

Prolonged exposure to loud noises can cause permanent hearing damage and loss. The auditory nerve and its sensory components cannot handle loud noises for long periods of time and eventually sustain irreversible damage. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a real problem for thousands of people who work in industries that require the use of loud tools and machinery. Long-term exposure to loud noises can cause permanent hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing/buzzing in the ears), and inner-ear problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hazardous levels of noise pollution exist in the workplace for approximately 22 million workers each year. This makes occupational noise the most common work-related hazard. The CDC reports that workers in the mining sector have the greatest number of hearing impairment injuries (17%), followed by the construction industry (16%), and the manufacturing sector (14%). Three percent of workers the CDC surveyed, in both the mining and construction sectors, reported moderate to severe hearing impairment.

In the mining sector, an average of 76% of workers are exposed to hazardous noise – the highest amount in any sector. More than 40% of all workers the CDC monitored in different mining environments are exposed to noises above the permissible exposure limit, which is 90 a-weighted decibels, or dBA. Miners have to listen to drilling noises at above 90 dBA for hours on end, greatly increasing the likelihood of sustaining NIHL and other related injuries.

The Push for a Change in the Workplace

One construction worker, Jeff Ammon, is an example of how debilitating noise-related injuries can be. Ammon worked in the construction industry for 32 years, surrounded by jackhammers, air compressors, and saws his entire working life. He began to wear ear protection after experiencing symptoms of damage, but by this time, it was too late. Ammon now suffers from piercing pain in his inner ear, as well as ringing and dizziness. He takes medication for pain management, which he says doesn’t help much, as well as for anxiety and depression. Ammon no longer likes to leave his soundproof basement.

The CDC, U.S. Department of Labor, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are working together to come up with solutions for the occupational NIHL occurring across America. Technology to reduce hearing injuries already exists, including noise barriers and sound-protection equipment. Studies show the majority of workers suffering hearing levels worked in moderate noise levels, not high.

One issue appears to be lax rules in the workplace, where employers don’t enforce ear protection in moderate to low noise conditions. It’s too easy for workers to remove their ear protection without admonishment from employers. Another problem is the cost of implementing noise-reduction equipment, especially for smaller companies.

Until employers take initiatives to enforce ear protection or take other measures to protect workers from harmful noise levels, employees must take their hearing health into their own hands. Early signs of hearing loss include ringing or humming noises after leaving work, having to shout for coworkers to hear you from an arm’s length away, and temporary loss of hearing. For workers who have already sustained permanent hearing and ear damage, contact a work injury attorney to see if you are eligible to receive workers’ compensation disability benefits or file a claim against a negligent employer.