Safety and health newsletter for the Oregon construction industry


August 14, 2012

megaphone hearing loss

Noise induced hearing loss: perception versus reality

In a recent study of nearly 2,600 workers at a Midwest auto plant, public health researchers found that 76 percent of the workers thought their hearing was excellent or good. However, tests revealed that 42 percent of those workers had hearing loss.

“Workers did not realize how much hearing loss they had even though these are workers who have their hearing tested every year,” said Marjorie C. McCullagh of the University Of Michigan School Of Nursing, who co-authored the study. “They're kind of minimizing the problem in their own mind, which is unfortunate because that may result in them taking unnecessary risks with their hearing.”

When it comes to noise-induced hearing loss, there’s always been a curious gap between perception and reality.

The link between hearing loss and noise exposure was established centuries ago, but it wasn’t until the 1830s when Charles Turner Thackrah recommended that workers with noisy jobs use cotton as earplugs to reduce the effect of sound waves upon their eardrums. Seventy-nine years later, medical experts confirmed work-related hearing loss in English boilermakers and tool grinders and urged the workers to use cotton wool in their ears to reduce the effect of noise on their hearing. Apparently, the workers weren’t concerned about hearing loss because they felt it wouldn’t interfere with their daily lives or make them unable to work, and they generally refused to use the earplugs.

Today, we have workplace noise standards intended to control worker exposure and we can precisely measure exposure levels but workers in mining, construction, and some manufacturing industries still have high levels of hearing loss. That’s according to the “Prevalence of Hearing Loss in the United States by Industry,” a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Suggesting an explanation for the findings, co-author Elizabeth Masterson said, “It may be that some industries with larger numbers of noise-exposed workers have developed a culture of hearing loss prevention, whereas industries with fewer at risk workers do not have the awareness, resources, or experience to prevent hearing loss among the small numbers of exposed workers.”

Perhaps because most noise-induced hearing loss has a gradual onset, many workers still feel it doesn’t interfere with their daily lives or make them unable to work – if only because they’re unaware of their failing ability to hear.


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