While hearing loss may be common, that doesn't mean it's not preventable. And union workers may be at greater than average risk. Boards of trustees can take an active role to help members prevent hearing loss and the need for hearing-loss treatment.
The Dangers and Costs of Hearing Loss
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, extended exposure to sounds above 85 decibels is likely to lead to noise-induced hearing impairment. From construction and manufacturing to transportation and restaurant service, many union industries involve noises at or above this threshold, roughly equivalent to the level of heavy city-traffic sounds.
The effects of diminished hearing ability go beyond inconvenience: Not only can communication difficulties hinder teamwork and interpersonal interactions in ways that impact workers' performance on the job, they can also cause misunderstandings and uncertainty around instructions, potentially leading to serious injury. As the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) notes, workers' safety also depends on their ability to hear announcements, warnings, alarms and machine signals. Constant loud noise is also often linked to stress, fatigue, irritability and even high blood pressure, according to AIHA.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that 22 million workers are exposed to workplace noises that have the potential to damage their hearing. Translating the ubiquity of this danger into costs, it's estimated that $242 million is spent annually towards workers' compensation for hearing-loss disability. For workers themselves, short- or long-term loss of work resulting from hearing damage can lead to major financial setbacks, as can paying for expensive hearing-loss treatment or devices like hearing aids, which cost an average of $2,710 out of pocket.
Helping Union Members Protect Their Hearing
Workers may fail to disclose their hearing loss to managers and co-workers for fear of unfair treatment. The same could go for concerns about working conditions relating to noise and hearing.
But with the right protections in place, hearing loss can be avoided. Start by communicating the health and financial risks of noise-induced hearing loss to your members, reminding them that hearing damage not only threatens their safety on the job but also diminishes their quality of life at home. Make sure your members know whether their jobs put them at risk, what constitutes a cause for concern and exactly how to escalate those concerns to the union.
At the same time, as OSHA suggests, work with employers and managers to identify opportunities to reduce noise hazards in the first place, from engineering controls that lower machine decibel levels to limiting the number of workers exposed to loud operations or the duration of individual workers' exposure. If necessary, ask for a professional measurement of worksite noise levels. From there, ensure that workers have access to and are required to use hearing-protection equipment like earplugs or earmuffs.
Finally, be sure that your health benefits plan allows members to visit hearing specialists who can provide personalized diagnosis and treatments. If you're concerned that members won't proactively seek out this care, consider facilitating on-site hearing screenings. And choose a plan that helps members afford hearing aids and necessary hearing-loss treatments.
Noise-induced hearing loss is a serious, pervasive issue, putting your members' lives at risk at work and at home. Help them protect their hearing now, while damage is still preventable.
Julia Passwater is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Passwater earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Indiana University Bloomington, and she earned a Juris Doctor degree from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. After earning her law degree, Passwater spent over a decade enforcing federal employment laws for the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Today, Passwater writes about topics such as politics, government, employment law and work in the 21st century.