02 Jun 2020

OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE

Occupational Deafness is the most commonly reported occupational disease in the EU.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that over 2 million people in the UK are exposed to noise levels at work that may be harmful. The number of people in the UK suffering from hearing damage as a result of exposure to noise at work was estimated at 509,000 in a Medical Research Council survey.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most common occupational disease in Europe. NIHL is permanent and incurable and has been recognised as an occupational disease since the 18th century, among copper workers hammering metal, blacksmiths, and shipbuilders.

Today, NIHL is regularly found in the manufacturing, construction, mining, agriculture and transport sectors. The construction sector and the manufacturing sector have the highest percentage of workers exposed to loud noise in the workplace and the highest percentage of workers reporting work-related hearing problems.

Graph shows percentage of workers reporting work-related hearing problems by sector (European Survey on Working Conditions)

Hearing damage gradually increases with exposure to noise. Often it can take a number of years of damage from noise for a person to realise they have become deaf. Hearing damage can also be caused immediately by sudden, loud noises.

What is Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) ?

NIHL represents excessive ‘wear and tear’ on the delicate inner ear structures of the Cochlea, the sensory organ of hearing. The symptoms of NIHL that occur over a period of continuous exposure increase gradually. Early stages of hearing loss will make it difficult to hear children’s voices, followed by women’s voices and speech in background noise. Sounds will become distorted or muffled, the individual may not be aware of the loss, but it can be detected with a hearing test.

How does it affect workers?

Hearing loss can affect workers in ways they may not have considered, such as:

  • ringing or buzzing in the ears or head (called tinnitus)
  • elevated blood pressure
  • fatigue
  • stress
  • social isolation from co-workers, family and friends.

Hearing impairment can be a major cause of psychological fatigue in the workplace. Particularly in work situations with high communication demands, such complaints should prompt an examination to assess noise levels and hearing ability.

What is the impact of NIHL?

An extensive Danish survey among 1,600 hearing impaired people aged between 16 and 60 examined the impact of hearing loss at work and in education. The survey was conducted by the Danish Institute for Social Research and resulted in the following conclusions.

  • People with hearing loss leave the labour market sooner than their normal-hearing colleagues; 18% receive disability pension compared with 7% in the general population.
  • It is harder for hearing impaired people to find work; 7.5% are unemployed compared to the general 4.8% unemployment rate.
  • Hearing loss leads to loss of employment; 8% of hearing impaired employees are either terminated or choose to resign.
  • More than one quarter (27%) believe that their hearing loss makes it hard to find a job; 9% find it impossible.
  • Hard of hearing people often feel mentally or physically exhausted at the end of the workday: 47% say they are mentally exhausted as compared to 36% in the general population; 51% of hearing impaired people say they are physically exhausted as compared to 31% in the general population.
  • Hearing problems at work affect leisure activities too; 13% find that they are so drained of energy from their work that they are unable to pursue leisure activities.
  • Hearing impaired people who want to pursue an education must make an extra effort: 40% say they must prepare better than other students in order to keep up in the classroom, 80% say they are mentally exhausted after a long day in school.

Exposure to occupational noise can also cause a number of additional negative health effects:

  • inability to sleep, fatigue and other sleep problems
  • a sense of isolation and interference with general workplace communications
  • inability to hear warnings of imminent safety hazards
  • temporary hearing loss
  • permanent hearing loss
  • tinnitus — a ringing or buzzing in the ears or head;
  • increased blood pressure and stress
  • hearing damage to an unborn child
  • high blood pressure
  • increased levels of stress hormones
  • digestion issues.

These conditions are entirely preventable if:

  1. employers take action to reduce exposure to noise and provide personal hearing protection and health surveillance to employees
  2. manufacturers design tools and machinery to operate more quietly
  3. employees make use of the personal hearing protection or other control measures supplied.