A large number of noise-exposed workers within the services industry sector—the largest sector in U.S. industry—have an elevated risk of hearing loss, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The study of hearing loss in workers across a wide variety of service industries was recently published in the International Journal of Audiology.
NIOSH researchers examined audiograms for 1.9 million noise-exposed workers across all industries, including audiograms for 158,436 service sector workers. An audiogram, sometimes called a “hearing test,” tests the ability to hear a range of sounds from low (500 hertz (Hz)) to high (8000 Hz) frequencies.
The construction, manufacturing, and mining sectors are recognized as having high percentages of workers exposed to hazardous noise who are at higher risk of hearing loss. Workers exposed to hazardous levels of noise or chemicals that can damage hearing may experience occupational hearing loss.
Hazardous noise exposure also is associated with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Hearing loss is often accompanied by a “ringing in the ears” (tinnitus) and is associated with both cognitive decline and depression.
While the prevalence of hearing loss across the service sector was 17%—very close to the prevalence of all industries combined (16%)—many subsectors greatly exceeded the overall prevalence by large percentages (10% to 33% higher), and many had high risks for hearing loss.
The services sector consists of a wide variety of industries, including accommodations and food service; dry cleaning and laundry; educational training; entertainment and recreation; financial transactions; landscaping; legal advice and representation; machinery repairing; newspaper, music, and software publishing; overseeing and managing governmental programs; renting and leasing; and security and surveillance.
Workers in administration of urban planning and community and rural development had the highest prevalence of hearing loss (50%), and workers in solid waste combustors and incinerators had the highest risk of any subsector—more than double.
Even subsectors traditionally viewed as “low risk” had higher-than-expected prevalences and/or risks, such as professional and technical services and schools. For example, custom computer programming services and elementary and secondary schools had prevalences of 35% and 26%, respectively.
NIOSH concluded additional research and surveillance are needed for those subsectors where there is low awareness of hearing hazards or a lack of hearing data. It is very important to identify the at-risk workers in subsectors where there is low awareness of hearing hazards and protect their hearing with the help of targeted interventions, according to the institute.
Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States after high blood pressure and arthritis, according to NIOSH. The institute recommends removing or reducing occupational noise at the source and, when noise cannot be reduced to safe levels, implementing an effective hearing conservation program.
Controls can include enclosing the source of the noise or placing a barrier between the noise source and the worker, increasing the distance between a worker and the source of noise, and reducing the time a worker spends in a noisy area. Hearing protection may involve using earmuffs or earplugs.