New data coming British Columbia has shown a dramatic uptick in hearing loss among workers in the oil and gas sector. This new data comes in alongside reports that hearing protection is being used more than ever before. What does it mean? Analysts believe that current hearing protection isn’t being consistently used properly, and better hearing protection may be necessary to protect workers from hearing harm.
A Rising Problem
In Canada, workplaces are required to provide their workers with hearing protection and annual hearing exams, the results of which they report to the overseeing workplace safety commission, WorkSafeBC. By enforcing preventative health measures, WorkSafeBC strives to keep workers safer on their jobs, similar to the role of OSHA in the United States.
Despite more workers reporting that they use hearing protection – the rate went from 94% in 2012 of workers to 98% in 2017- more hearing loss was also recorded. In 2012, 33% of workers in oil and gas were found to have significant hearing loss. In 2017 that number went up dramatically to 45%, nearly one in every two workers. Equally troubling is that the age distribution of hearing loss in the oil and gas workforce. In 2017, out of the 294 oil and gas employees with hearing loss, 65% were under the age of 35.
The British Columbia oil and gas industry is currently an outlier amongst noisy industries in Canada. In other loud industries, hearing loss rates are around 13% of the workforce. Oil rigs, extraction and refinery sites do rank among some of the loudest work environments but WorkSafeBC is also investigating the role of hearing protection in the jump in hearing loss.
Use It or Lose It
One possibility raised is that workers are not being properly trained for how to correctly use the hearing protection available. This can especially be a problem if foam ear plugs are the primary form of hearing protection. In order for foam ear plugs to offer effective protection, they must be compressed and rolled before being inserted in the ear. In most cases the ear should be pulled back to best insert the plug in the ear canal. When worn properly, foam ear plugs are nearly invisible.
If not worn correctly, however, ear plugs do not fill the ear canal and offer the user far less protection from loud sounds. Similarly, ear plugs come in different sizes and workers may need to be assisted in finding the correct fit. Improper usage of ear plugs may be largely responsible for the gap between the high rate of hearing loss despite the high rate of hearing protection usage.
A consistently loud environment can cause permanent hearing damage rapidly and worsen hearing with consistent exposure. In the US, OSHA standards require that workplaces that create 85 dB noise levels or above to provide their workers with appropriate hearing protection. 85 dB, approximately the sound of a food blender at close range, can cause permanent hearing damage after 8 sustained hours of exposure. Past that threshold, louder sounds do damage to hearing much faster. Sounds at 95 dB are only safe for one hour of exposure, while 105 dB can permanently damage hearing in under 15 minutes
For loud job sites, like those in oil and gas, more advanced hearing protection may be necessary. Protective ear muffs can provide additional noise blockage and can be worn with or without ear plugs for varying degrees of protection. WorkSafeBC is encouraged by the growing number of workers wearing hearing protection, and is concentrating its analysis on whether the hearing protection provided is appropriate for the noise level and being used effectively.
Lifelong Hearing Health
Noise-induced hearing loss is a growing problem in our society, and job-related noise often plays a role in the development of a hearing problem. Once noise-induced hearing damage occurs, we experience a permanent injury to our hearing, one that accumulates the more hazardous noise we are exposed to. The vulnerability of our hearing makes it important to protect your ears every time you are around loud noise.
Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, but, while the harm cannot be reversed, it can be effectively treated. Hearing aids and assistive devices can be used to restore much of a person’s hearing challenges. How do you start maintaining your hearing health? A good first step is setting up an appointment for a hearing exam with Exceptional Hearing Care. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have about your hearing and help you overcome any hearing challenges you encounter.