Hearing loss is the No. 3 most common chronic physical condition among U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of all the types members can face, sensorineural hearing loss is the most prevalent. Often, the hearing loss happens on the job, especially in industries like manufacturing, construction, milling, forging and ship-building. Many workers in these sectors are consistently exposed to a noise level above 85 decibels, which is considered hazardous to human health.
In response, many Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regions have implemented either Regional Emphasis Programs (REP) or Local Emphasis Programs (LEP) to monitor, reduce and protect employees from workplace noise.
Here's what union leaders need to know to about these programs to protect members from sensorineural hearing loss.
The Effect of Noise at Work
The CDC reports that 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year. Being exposed to a high noise volume for an extended period of time can cause permanent hearing loss, which in turn affects a person's ability to communicate, concentrate and perform certain tasks. Hearing loss can also impact other parts of life, leading to loss of sleep and increased stress. Although surgery and hearing aids can limit the effects of hearing loss, they cannot reverse sensorineural hearing loss. Depending on the level of damage, they may not help at all.
OSHA's Response to Hearing Loss
OSHA regulations require employers to provide a hearing damage prevention program if employees are exposed to a noise level at or above 85 decibels during an eight-hour shift or an eight-hour time-weighted average during a 40-hour workweek.
To ensure this standard is met, OSHA regions have implemented programs to:
Schedule and conduct inspections to identify and reduce noise exposure
Increase employer awareness of noise hazards
Provide employer training sessions on hearing loss and prevention
Share information, both in writing and electronically, with employers on hearing loss prevention
Issue citations for noise violations
This foundation should provide paths for union leaders to identify noise hazards and encourage employers to take necessary steps to reduce or eliminate the concern. Those steps may include modifying noisy equipment (for example, choosing a quieter machine or better maintaining existing equipment) or changing how workers interact with the machine (such as placing a sound barrier between the worker and machine). Employers can also limit the amount of time a worker spends near sources of noise, either by adjusting schedules or by operating the noisiest machines when the fewest number of workers are present. As an additional precaution, employers may provide hearing protection devices.
Keeping Members Safe
Members can be their own first line of defense against hearing loss. Start by providing information on what members should do to protect their hearing on the job. Recommend scheduling regular breaks away from loud noises and protecting their ears with approved earplugs, earmuffs or another type of custom hearing protection. Update your workers in regions with OSHA REPs and LEPs to let them know what to expect during and after inspections.
For members who are unsure whether they are exposed to hazardous levels of noise at work, offer this test: If a member needs to raise their voice to speak with someone standing 3 feet away, the noise level is likely high enough to cause sensorineural hearing loss. Other signs of hazardous noise levels include ringing in the ears or temporary hearing loss after leaving work. Encourage members to download the Sound Level Meter app, a free program from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that measures noise levels.
If any members are concerned about noise on the job, provide contact information for a union representative who can answer questions and make sure the job site is in compliance with OSHA regulations. Sensorineural hearing loss may be a concern for members in many of the industries you represent, but as a union leader, you can arm your members with information that's vital to protecting their health.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather is the author of the book, Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.