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NIOSH Study Looks at Prevalence of Hearing Difficulty and Tinnitus Among Workers

Release Date: February 3, 2016

Hazardous noise is prevalent in the workplace, affecting approximately 22 million United States (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.

A new study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) examines hearing difficulty and tinnitus as two potentially debilitating physical conditions that are prevalent in the U.S., especially among workers occupationally exposed to noise. The NIOSH study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, is the first to report prevalence estimates for tinnitus by industry sector and occupation and provide these estimates side by side with prevalence estimates of hearing difficulty.

NIOSH examined data from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), a collection of detailed self-reported information on hearing difficulty, tinnitus, and exposures to occupational noise. Hearing conditions were compared among workers with and without occupational noise exposure and across industries and occupations. Researchers noted the following key findings:

Hearing difficulty, tinnitus, and their co-occurrence are prevalent in the U.S., but especially among noise-exposed workers. Workers with hearing loss often have trouble localizing sounds or hearing warning signals and have an increased risk of accidents. Hearing loss impedes communication and often leads to isolation in social situations, impediments in career progression, reduced autonomy, poor self-image, fatigue, frustration and depression. Tinnitus can disrupt sleep and concentration, increasing fatigue, impacting alertness, degrading performance, and potentially increasing risks for accidents on and off the job. The NIOSH 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.

“Hearing loss can greatly impact a worker's overall health and well-being,” noted NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “A study of the prevalence of hearing conditions among the overall U.S. adult population and among noise-exposed and non-noise-exposed workers gives a clearer understanding of where improved strategies for prevention of hearing loss are needed. Hazardous levels of occupational noise exposure and environmental noise exposure both need to be avoided.”

An abstract of the study, “Hearing Difficulty and Tinnitus among U.S. Workers and Non-workers in 2007,” can be found at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajim.22565/abstract. The full text is available for a fee. For more information about occupational hearing loss surveillance, see the NIOSH website at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ohl/. Additional information on hearing loss prevention is available at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/.

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