A new study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine last week, examines hearing difficulty and tinnitus as two potentially debilitating physical conditions that are prevalent in the United States, especially among workers occupationally-exposed to noise.
Hazardous noise is prevalent in the workplace, affecting approximately 22 million U.S. workers. Many cases of hearing loss among these employed adults are attributable to occupational noise exposures, and can have substantial adverse impacts for work, interpersonal relationships and general quality of life.
Tinnitus, often known as “ringing in the ears,” is the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when there is no other source of sound in the environment and often occurs together with hearing loss.
The NIOSH study is the first to report prevalence estimates for tinnitus by U.S. industry sector and occupation, and provide these estimates side by side with prevalence estimates of hearing difficulty.
Researchers noted the following key findings:
- Seven percent of U.S. workers never exposed to noise on the job had hearing difficulty, 5% had tinnitus and 2% had both conditions. However, among workers who had at some point in their working careers been exposed to occupational noise, the prevalence was 23%, 15% and 9%, respectively.
- Workers in the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting industry sector had a significantly higher risk of hearing difficulty, tinnitus, and their co-occurrence. Workers in the Manufacturing industry sector also had significantly higher risks for tinnitus and the co-occurrence of tinnitus and hearing difficulty.
- Workers in Life, Physical and Social Science occupations and Personal Care and Service occupations had significantly higher risks for hearing difficulty. Workers in Architecture and Engineering occupations also had significantly higher risks for tinnitus. Workers in Sales and Related occupations had significantly lower risks for hearing difficulty, tinnitus and their co-occurrence.
This study identifies industries and occupations in which prevention efforts need to be focused. Increased awareness of these problems, targeted interventions, better implementation of current best practices for hearing conservation in the workplace, improving and innovating these strategies, and stronger regulations are needed to safeguard workers’ quality of life.