The Most Common Workplace Injury — It’s Not What You Expect

When it comes to workplace injuries, the first things to come to mind may be a slip-and-fall accident, an accident involving machinery, or perhaps an injury from repetitive motion. But surprisingly, the most common workplace injury is perhaps more preventable than those — hearing loss.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 22 million workers annually are exposed to hazardous levels of noise in the workplace. The sectors in which occupational hearing loss is more common are mining, construction, and manufacturing.

The reason this may be surprising is that workplace regulations require ear protection for high levels of noise — protections that are designed to prevent exactly this kind of occupational hearing loss. It isn’t that the ear protection used in workplaces is ineffective. To the contrary, many of the cases of workplace hearing loss are happening not in high-noise situations, but in medium-noise situations, where workers (and their managers) do not realize that the noise is harming their hearing.

The risk of hearing loss – an easy fix

A study done at Stanford University found that employees who experience hearing loss most often are those who are generally around moderate noise levels at work. According to the lead scientist, Mark Cullen, “at very high noise exposures, people very faithfully wear hearing protection and at low noise situations, people don’t.”

In this case, the fix seems rather simple: increase awareness about the risk of even moderate noise levels, ensure compliance (wearing protective gear), and/or find ways to minimize workplace noise. Many times workers at noisy worksites choose not to wear hearing protection because they do not realize that there’s a risk. It’s not enough to educate the workers themselves about the risk. The leadership at companies needs to be aware of the risk so they can adapt their safety policies and ensure compliance.

According to regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are required to provide workers with training, hearing tests and free hearing protectors if they are exposed to noise at an average of 85 decibels for 8 hours a day or more. OSHA’s recommendation is that all worker exposures to noise be below a level equivalent to 85 dBA for eight hours to minimize occupational noise-induced hearing loss. The maximum allowed by OSHA is 90 decibels of 8-hour noise exposure.

There are now higher-tech options available for managing noise exposure. There is protective gear that is able to measure and track noise exposure. It can alert the user when noise exposure is too high, and provide daily statistics to track overall exposure to noise.

Another possible option for decreasing the incidence of occupational hearing loss is for companies to get rid of noisy equipment, buying a less-noisy alternative, or building noise barriers. This eliminates the compliance problem. When companies rely solely on employees using hearing protection gear, it is too easy for employees to just take it off or not use it.

What Is being done to combat workplace hearing loss?

A number of federal departments and agencies have efforts underway to combat workplace hearing loss. The Department of Labor is trying to reduce the number of those affected by occupational hearing loss through education and awareness campaigns. They launched a competition a few months ago called “Hear and Now” to get bids on ideas for technology and methods to alert workers to hazardous noise levels.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a current campaign, called Buy Quiet, to encourage companies to buy or rent quieter tools and machines to reduce workplace noise exposure. They also provide a list of equipment and noise levels to make it easier for companies to select quieter products, and they are encouraging manufacturers to design quieter equipment by creating a demand for it.

Some are also pushing for lower maximum levels of noise exposure, arguing that current allowable levels are too high. OSHA is invested in this issue, and according to officials there, they are planning to issue a request for information by the end of the year to determine if a change is needed in their guidelines, and to evaluate compliance by companies.

What about damage that was already done?

If you have experienced workplace hearing loss, whether mild, moderate, or severe, you may have a workers’ compensation claim. According to figures from the Department of Labor, around $242 million in workers’ compensation is spent annually for hearing loss disability.

Whether or not you have a claim may depend on the severity of hearing loss and the state you live in. For example, in Pennsylvania you may be covered if you have a hearing loss of 10% or more in both ears. Most states recognize occupational hearing loss as an injury that is eligible for workers’ compensation, but you must be able to prove that the hearing loss was work-related.

A couple of things that you may be able to document in advance of your claim are:

  • Documentation of average noise levels at your workplace
  • Medical records showing hearing loss

If you have suffered hearing loss on the job, talk to an experienced workers’ compensation attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney can discuss your experience and what options you may have for getting compensation for your injuries. Talking to a lawyer is step in the right direction on your road to recovery.