June 06, 2020
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‘You don’t get it back’: Hearing loss a growing problem as workforce ages

Behind a set of insulated doors, the factory floor at Fisher Engineering in Rockland is a noisy, colorful swirl of industry. Brilliant sparks fly off welding and cutting stations. Thick sheets of steel drop with a crash into metal cradles. Forklifts trundle along painted lanes on the concrete floor, beeping loudly to signal their approach.

Bright red and yellow snow plow blades, the signature product of this venerable Maine business, move slowly through the plant at shoulder level, secured to a rumbling conveyor system that seems to reach every corner of the 150,000 square-foot manufacturing floor.

Fisher Engineering, formerly Fisher Plow, has been an important employer on the midcoast for about 70 years. Worker retention is high, and many of the approximately 300 employees have been with the company for more than 20 years. But like any heavy manufacturing environment, working here has its hazards. Over time and under the regulatory eye of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other groups, Fisher Engineering has developed a comprehensive worker safety program.

On the 150,000-square-foot manufacturing floor, for example, workers wear clear plastic goggles to protect their eyes from flying bits of metal and other particles. They wear steel-toed boots to prevent injury from the heavy pieces of steel with which they work. And, all through their 10-hour shifts, they keep foam plugs in their ears to safeguard their hearing from the constant noise on the manufacturing floor.

The ambient noise level on the factory floor is about 90 decibels, according Rob Somerville, a production supervisor at Fisher Engineering and the head of the company’s safety program. That’s a little louder than a dishwasher, but quieter than a power mower.

In some production areas, the noise level is considerably higher because of the use of tools like impact wrenches and nail guns or the periodic crashing of steel-on-steel.

“Eighty-five decibels and up is where OSHA requires ear protection,” Somerville said, so all workers must use protection all the time. Earplugs and muff-style headsets are effective at reducing noise exposure to acceptable levels, he said, but in the noisier areas of the plant, workers wear both to double-up on protection.

Somerville, who has worked in occupational safety for about 20 years, said that while most workers quickly understand the need to prevent crushing injuries to their hands or feet, or to protect their eyes from damage, they are sometimes surprisingly relaxed about using ear protection.

“A lot of people really just don’t think about it,” he said. “They don’t realize that it’s not like cutting your finger and putting a Band-Aid on it and it heals. Once you lose your hearing, you don’t get it back.”

Repercussions in the workplace

Occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related disorders in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, about 30 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work and many will suffer ear damage and hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss is most often caused by cumulative exposure over time to noisy work environments. But non-noise-related, “organic” hearing loss also is a common problem with advancing age, as the delicate mechanisms of the ear break down naturally over time. The combination means that many older adults, including many baby boomers still in the workforce, experience hearing loss.

For workers and their employers, hearing loss is not simply an unpleasant inconvenience. It also creates physical and psychological stress, reduces workplace productivity, interferes with communication, and contributes to accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals like the backup signal on a dump truck or the beep of an approaching forklift.

In Maine, the work environments most associated with hearing loss include heavy equipment manufacturing, wood products manufacturing and trucking and transportation, according to data from the Division of Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late Deafened within the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services.

The division, supported by state and federal dollars, aims to connect adult workers who have suffered a hearing loss with technologies and strategies that can help keep them on the job or transition to a new position. Staff also work with employers, co-workers, family members and others to help build support for individuals who are adjusting to hearing loss.

“Hearing loss can interfere with real and perceived work ability on many levels,” said Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy, operations and communications at the labor department, including hands-on tasks as well as professional trainings, meeting participation, the ability to travel comfortably and general workplace communications.

Of the approximately 1,080 Mainers who sought services from the Department of Labor’s hearing program in 2016, 39 percent were 23 to 54 years old, 34 percent were 55 to 65 and 18 percent were 66 and older. Rabinowitz said the average age of clients is expected to rise over time.

“Because hearing loss is often connected with aging, we anticipate seeing an increase in baby boomer-generation workers experiencing hearing loss,” she said in an email. While the program aims to help workers access the personal technology they need to function effectively in the workplace, employers also benefit from knowing how to accommodate a valued employee who is struggling with hearing loss.

“There are many accommodations that use smart-phone and computer technologies that are relatively inexpensive — especially compared the cost of replacing an employee — that can help both the employer and an employee maintain that mutually beneficial and valuable relationship,” Rabinowitz said.

Hearing loss on the homefront

At The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, audiologist Caitlin Helstrom said it can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of noise-related hearing loss in adults.

“It may be a combination of factors, including genetic makeup, damage to the inner ear, occupational exposure and recreational exposure,” she said.

Especially in rural areas where Mainers routinely use noisy equipment like chainsaws and tractors and enjoy activities such as four-wheeling, snowmobiling, shooting and car racing, she said, the assault on hearing can come from many directions.

“The most common loss we see is in the high-frequency ranges,” Helstrom said, because the portion of the ear that is responsible for processing those sounds also is the most susceptible to damage.

Women’s voices, birdsong and the ring of the doorbell may become progressively harder to hear, for example, and speech may sound muddy and indistinct, particularly on the telephone.

“People make an appointment and say, ‘It’s not that I can’t hear, it just sounds like everyone’s mumbling; it’s all jumbled together,” Helstrom said. “A lot of people come in hoping it’s an earwax issue.”

Helstrom said hearing loss is the third most common chronic disorder in American adults, after high blood pressure and arthritis. While some hearing loss is a natural result of the aging process, she sees many patients in their 50s, 60s and 70s who have sustained noise-related hearing loss through decades of farm work and other activities.

“They don’t come in until they have a real problem, and by then the damage is done,” she said. Much of what she sees could have been prevented or significantly lessened, she said, if people had been more diligent about protecting their hearing in their day-to-day activities, whether at work or at play.

Now what?

For those who have already lost their hearing, regardless of the cause, Helstrom said the most straightforward remedy is a hearing aid that amplifies sound directly into the ear. But the new generation of hearing aids offers many improvements over the clunky, whistling, ill-fitting models our grandparents struggled with.

“They’ve gotten much better over time,” she said. “As the baby boomers age and technology improves, the industry has really had to step up and make improvements in style and comfort.”

New models are smaller, can loop over the ear or fit neatly in the ear canal, and they are sometimes nearly invisible, she said. They also do a better job of distinguishing a nearby conversation from the noise of the surrounding room and deliver sound with less distortion and feedback.

“There are a whole range of styles and sizes,” she said. The cost ranges from about $1,000 up to $6,000 for a pair. And while Medicare does not pay for hearing aids, some private insurance policies do, and, for some folks, Medicaid. In addition, a number of public, private and nonprofit programs help Mainers acquire hearing aids, telephone amplification systems and other tools to navigate their lives with a loss in hearing.

Despite these improvements and opportunities, Helstrom said prevention is the best approach.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent,” she said, “but it’s also the only completely preventable form of hearing loss.”


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