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How to protect firefighter hearing

Even seemingly low-level noise over time can damage hearing and lead to additional health risks


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How to protect firefighter hearing

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Awareness for the threat to our hearing posed by being a firefighter is growing. As with the increased awareness for other threats like cancer and heart disease, our concerns are focused on our work environment and our work behaviors.

Hearing losses occur in firefighters because we work in noisy surroundings and we historically have not taken the necessary precautions to protect our hearing from those noisy surroundings.

And for the most part, we provide the noise in our environment with fire apparatus and portable power equipment regardless of whether it's the fireground or back at the fire station.

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Exposure to noises of 80 decibels (dB) or greater for more than 15 minutes per day can cause long-term hearing loss. What does that sound like?

  • Jet engine at take-off or a gunshot is more than 140 dB.
  • Amplified music concert or emergency siren is 120 dB.
  • Motorcycle, chain saw or MP3 player (at full volume) is 110 dB.

Now think of all the times during the day when fire apparatus and those power tools are operating. Obviously, noise is generated by apparatus and equipment used by firefighters to complete tasks on the emergency scene. But don't forget all the times around the fire station when that same equipment is being operated for daily, weekly or monthly equipment checks.

Forget about our emergency equipment for just a moment and think of the other equipment that creates harmful levels of noise for firefighters around the station. Those can include lawn mowers, string trimmers and leaf blowers, just to name a few of the more common pieces.

Promoting hearing conservation
According to Hearingloss.com, one in five Americans experience hearing loss and 80 percent do nothing about it, typically because hearing loss occurs gradually. Interestingly, most people will get an eye exam on a regular basis, but very few get regularly scheduled hearing tests — insurance coverage may be one reason for this.

The company officer should be an advocate for hearing conservation. If the department has a hearing conservation program or policy in place, know and understand what it contains and what your responsibilities are, both as a supervisor charged with enforcing the policy and an employee covered by its provisions.

Educate your personnel about the hearing loss hazards they are exposed to in the emergency and non-emergency settings. Make sure that they understand that even relatively low noise levels can be harmful with repeated and steady exposures.

To protect firefighters' hearing, the company officer must educate, engineer and enforce.

Engineering measures to reduce noise exposure can include the use of noise-reducing earplugs, ear canal caps and earmuffs. It can also include ensuring that mufflers and other noise-reducing equipment are properly installed and maintained and erecting sound-reducing barriers.

Once you've ensured that your personnel understand what noise hazards exist and what engineering measures should be used to protect their hearing, it's up to the supervisor to ensure their compliance.

All the knowledge and awareness in the world will do nothing to protect a firefighter from hearing loss over the course of their career if hearing protection equipment is not used 100 percent of the time when it's needed. And that includes when they are mowing the station lawn and whacking weeds along the fence line.

Long- and short-term effects
Hearing care practitioner Sara Swann works at the Beltone Hearing Aid Center in Charleston, W. Va. In a Jan. 4 profile article in the Gazette-Mail, Ms. Swann shared some insights regarding the physiological impacts of hearing loss.

"Hearing loss develops gradually, so you adapt. You think you are doing OK. Other people notice it before you do," said Swann. "You may lose two or three decibels of volume a year, not a lot, but over nine or 11 years of you trying to adapt to that, by the time you come in here [to get a hearing test], you already have a 40 percent hearing loss.

"As things progressed, we found out how it [hearing loss] affects the body and the mind," she said. "It can cause dementia because that part of the brain starts to atrophy. Now we know the earlier we treat, the better you do with maintaining the ability to understand certain speech sounds.

"About six years ago, they linked hearing loss to dementia and to certain types of heart disease. If you are constantly straining to hear you are putting stress on your body."

So what are you and your department doing to prevent hearing loss on the job? Over the past few decades, much has been learned about the implementation of hearing loss-prevention programs.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are eight components of a successful hearing loss-prevention program.

  1. Noise exposure monitoring.
  2. Engineering and administrative controls.
  3. Audiometric evaluation.
  4. Use of hearing protection devices.
  5. Education and motivation.
  6. Record keeping.
  7. Program evaluation.
  8. Program audit. 

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