Noise-induced occupational hearing loss is normally entirely preventable. But lack of awareness, especially among younger workers, poor training methods and the fact fit-testing is not mandatory means it remains worryingly widespread, warns Kjersti Rutlin.
The tragedy of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is that, despite being entirely preventable in most cases, it remains the most commonly reported occupational disease in Europe.
What is even more striking is that, as World Hearing Day in March reminds us each year, NIHL is expected to become even more widespread in decades to come, with 1.1 billion young people at risk globally.
About the author
Kjersti Rutlin is global technical training specialist for hearing conservation at Honeywell Industrial Safety
Raising awareness of this occupational disease – especially among the younger generations of workers – has therefore never been so important.
Lack of awareness is indeed one of the main reasons why occupational NIHL remains so widespread and is, in large part, a result of gaps in legislation combined with inadequate training practices.
The fact that fit-testing is yet to become mandatory is particularly striking, bearing in mind this very simple one-to-one training procedure is key to assessing if a worker is wearing hearing protection correctly. Consequently, fit-testing has not been widely adopted by employers.
Making fit-testing mandatory can go a long way toward tackling conditions such as tinnitus, which can quite often result from poorly-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE). It would encourage employers to make this training practice an integral part of their hearing conservation strategies.
It is also crucial to help workers maintain their awareness of NIHL through refreshment training sessions. In this respect, tools such as audio files and videos that demonstrate the symptoms of conditions such as tinnitus and their life-changing consequences should complement fit-testing.
This type of training can appeal to millennials who are likely to have grown up in the era of YouTube and, over time, help them maintain and enhance their knowledge of preventing NIHL.
Future technological developments will also provide new opportunities to raise awareness of hearing conservation among younger workers. One trend in this respect is enhancing communication while preserving hearing in the long term.
Increasingly, devices such as earmuffs are becoming communication hubs that connect to smartphones via Bluetooth, enabling workers to answer phone calls, hear alarms or receive vital instructions without putting their hearing at risk.
Better use of technology
Additionally, the integration of miniaturised microphones to register residual noise, combined with software and cloud technology, is enabling a new, app-based approach to hearing conservation, with the ability to monitor sound exposure in real time.
Offering younger workers the same level of interactivity and ease-of-use of the technology they are accustomed to in the consumer space could encourage the uptake and correct use of hearing protection.
By equipping itself with the kind of technology that meets the expectations of this generation of “digital natives”, the safety industry will put itself in the best position to protect their hearing in the long term.
Occupational Noise, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, at https://www.iosh.co.uk/Books-and-resources/Our-OH-toolkit/Noise.aspx
Deafness and Hearing Loss, World Health Organization, at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs300/en/
Directive 2003/10/EC – noise, European Agency for Safety and Health, at Work, https://osha.europa.eu/en/legislation/directives/82