What is Workplace Hearing Loss?
In Australia, around 30% of the workforce is likely to work in a noisy environment. While some workplaces are louder than others, working in loud environments can ultimately lead to workplace hearing loss. There are regulations in place in Australia to protect employees from loud noises in the workplace.
Regular hearing tests are crucial in detecting any changes in your hearing due to loud noises in the workplace. In addition, workers with hearing loss found to be the result of loud noise exposure in the workplace may be eligible for compensation claims.
However, when it comes to workplace hearing loss, prevention is critical.
What is Workplace Hearing Loss?
As you can probably guess, workplace hearing loss refers to hearing loss that occurs due to loud noise exposure or exposure to ototoxic chemicals in the workplace.
Loud noise exposure may be sudden or continuous loud noises. Such exposure can also cause tinnitus, which is the perception of noise in the ears or head when no physical noise is present. While workplace hearing loss is permanent, is it preventable.
How We Hear
Before we can understand how noise damages our hearing, we must first learn how we hear.
Although it is a complex process, the ear can be broken down into three basic parts, the outer, middle and inner ear.
- The Outer Ear: Pinna (visible part of the ear) and the ear canal.
- The Middle Ear: Tympanic membrane/eardrum, middle ear cavity with the ossicles (malleus, incus and stapes), and the Eustachian tube.
- The Inner Ear: Cochlea (organ of hearing) and balance system.
Sound waves are captured by the pinna and sent to the eardrum via the ear canal, causing the eardrum to vibrate and vibrate the ossicles. The movement of the ossicles displaces the fluid in the cochlea (where many tiny hair cells are) and cause the hair cells to bend and create electrical impulses. These electrical impulses reach the brain via the hearing nerve and are perceived as sound.
How Does Noise Damage Hearing?
The hair cells in the cochlea are susceptible to damage from loud noise exposure. A loud sound causes the hair cells to bend to their extreme and, in some cases, cause the hair cell to break off, resulting in instant and permanent damage.
This means the quality of the signal being sent to the brain has been disrupted, leading to hearing difficulty. The resulting hearing loss is known as sensorineural hearing loss.
Tinnitus can also occur due to hair cell damage as the brain is not receiving the entire signal and doesn’t like silence, so it generates its own internal noise, also known as tinnitus. In addition, hair cell damage is permanent as the hair cells cannot be regenerated; therefore, the resulting hearing loss and tinnitus are also permanent.
What Industries Have High Levels of Hearing Loss?
Specific industries are noisier than others and, therefore, have higher levels of workplace hearing loss.
The noisiest industries include:
- Manufacturing: This industry has high levels of hearing loss as workers operate heavy machinery.
- Construction: Workers use power tools (drills and grinders) and hand tools (hammers), which can be extremely loud and cause hearing loss.
- Mining: Workers in this industry operate heavy machinery, drills, excavators, blast bombs and work in noisy operating plants, all of which can result in workplace hearing loss.
- Military: This industry has high levels of hearing loss as workers are constantly exposed to noise from live weapons fire, explosions and aircraft.
- Aviation: Workers in this industry can suffer from workplace hearing loss due to exposure from aircraft, refuelling and maintenance work.
- Entertainment/Music: This industry exposes workers to loud instruments and speakers, which can result in workplace hearing loss.
As so many industries expose their workers to loud environments, there are regulations in place in Australia to protect employees from loud noises in the workplace.
- Employees cannot be exposed to sudden loud noises greater than 140 decibels (dB) as permanent damage can occur.
- Employees cannot be exposed to any continuous loud noises greater than 85dB over eight hours. The safe amount of time halves as the sound level rises.
Worker’s Compensation Claims
If workers are exposed to too much loud noise over some time and have hearing loss due to workplace loud noise exposure, they may be able to claim hearing aids or lump sum compensation.
Hearing loss compensation claims may take six to 12 months on average. The process usually begins with a hearing screen. If the result comes back ‘failed’, you will be sent for formal diagnostic audiological testing completed by an audiologist.
At this assessment, your audiologist will ask you about your history of work-related loud noise exposure and assess your hearing. If it appears that loud noise exposure was the likely cause of the hearing loss and you meet the required criteria, they will recommend a compensation claim.
If you choose to proceed with the claim, the audiologist will refer you to a lawyer and send across all the relevant paperwork required to begin the claim. The paperwork will include a quote for appropriate hearing aids, which your audiologist would have discussed with you during the appointment. There is no cost to you, and you can stop the process at any time.
The compensation process involves seeing an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who will further investigate the hearing loss and determine whether the hearing loss results from workplace loud noise exposure. Once your claim has been approved, you will be fitted with hearing aids. Your insurance company will cover any repairs or maintenance required, replacement of lost devices and battery supply. You will also be eligible for new hearing aids under Workcover every 4-5 years as needed.
Preventing Workplace Hearing Loss
As mentioned earlier, workplace hearing loss is preventable. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of employers to prevent workplace hearing loss. There are many ways they can do this, including:
- Purchasing quiet equipment/machinery to reduce the level of noise workers are exposed to.
- Using automated equipment/machinery so workers don’t have to operate the noisy equipment.
- Using materials that isolate/dampen sound.
- Reducing the number of time employees are around noise (e.g. a rotating roster).
- Eliminating the loud noise by removing a piece of machinery or equipment if possible.
- Lowering the amount of noise by substituting a process.
- Providing workers with regular hearing screening/tests.
In addition, employees can also make sure they are safe in the workplace by using hearing protection (earplugs/earmuffs) when in noisy environments and get their hearing tested regularly.
Regular Hearing Tests
Regular hearing tests are essential for workers exposed to loud noise to monitor their hearing thresholds’ stability and detect changes.
How often your hearing needs to be tested is determined by what noise you are exposed to and your ear/hearing history. Annual assessments are recommended for people who work in noisy environments and have normal hearing and no other symptoms.
Three or six-monthly assessments may be more appropriate for those with hearing loss and tinnitus to monitor any changes.
Workplace hearing loss is one of the leading causes of hearing loss and is entirely preventable.
If you work in a noisy environment, it’s essential to get your hearing tested regularly. If you’re not sure where to get your hearing tested, chat to the friendly brokers at EarDeals, who will find the right audiologist for you.