The University Record, April 16, 2001

Researcher hopes words of warning on hearing loss don’t fall on deaf ears

By Lesley Harding
News and Information Services

Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves? Does your family ask you to turn the TV down? Do people tell you that you’re talking too loud? If so, you could have noise-induced hearing loss.

Helen Keller once said, “Deafness is worse than blindness.” She felt she could compensate for her lack of eyesight by learning Braille, but there was no getting around her inability to hear. That’s why one U-M researcher feels it’s so important for people to protect themselves from loud noises.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is a permanent disability,” says Sally Lusk, professor of nursing. “Hearing aids don’t restore hearing. And what people don’t understand is this disability is 100 percent preventable.”

Lusk hopes people will listen up on International Noise Awareness Day, which is April 25. More than 20 million people in the United States have some type of hearing impairment, and at least half of those cases are probably due to noise exposure, Lusk says.

For many workers, the tools of their trade are damaging their hearing. Noise-induced hearing loss cases are most often reported in the construction, manufacturing, agricultural, airline and lawn service industries. Employees in these fields are exposed to loud and lasting noise on a regular basis. Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common occupational diseases and the second most self-reported occupational illness or injury. The

U-M and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders finds:

  • 44 percent of carpenters and 48 percent of plumbers reported a perceived hearing loss.

  • 90 percent of coal miners will have hearing impairment by age 52 (compared with 9 percent of the general population).

  • 70 percent of male, metal/nonmetal miners will experience hearing impairment by age 60.

    The most startling finding, however, is that all of these noise-induced hearing loss cases could have been avoided with proper protection. Despite the availability of protective gear, workers only wear it 18 percent–71 percent of the time it is needed, U-M studies find.

    In many jobs, employees are required to wear hearing protection. However, even if they follow the standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, eight out of 100 employees still will experience hearing loss. Lusk says the focus should be on getting manufacturers to produce quieter equipment, but when that fails, workers must use hearing protection 100 percent of the time.

    A less noisy work environment might be healthier overall. Studies show that exposure to noise also effects blood pressure, heart disease, stress levels, illness/absence rates, depression, anxiety, job satisfaction and the incidence of accidents.

    Lusk has developed a series of training programs to increase the awareness of noise-induced hearing loss and get more workers to wear protective gear. She currently is refining an interactive, multimedia program tailored to the individual employee. This computer program is used following the worker’s annual hearing test. The computer records the responses and gives feedback based on the worker’s needs.

    “The end result is to prevent hearing loss due to noise,” Lusk says.