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Young workers who aren’t using earplugs at work now will pay the price later

Nearly 1 in 5 young workers is not wearing hearing protection, finds WorkSafeBC
By Amanda Silliker
| Canadian Occupational Safety
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While today’s youth are rarely seen without headphones in their ears at the mall, on the bus or at the dinner table, they aren’t quite as enthusiastic when it comes to putting in earplugs at work. Nearly one in five young workers is not wearing hearing protection, according to data collected by WorkSafeBC from more than 160,000 hearing tests. Nineteen per cent of workers age 21 or under reported not wearing hearing protection, compared to 12 per cent of workers of all ages.

“It’s an immaturity to the overall long-term effects of prolonged high volumes,” says Cameron Mitchell, a consultant with Kasa Consulting in Calgary. “The attitude is: ‘It’s not affecting me now, so why is it a big deal if I’m not wearing my hearing protection?’”

When looking at specific industries, the WorkSafeBC data found 24 per cent of young workers in construction were not wearing hearing protection, compared to 13 per cent of workers over the age of 50 and 11 per cent of workers in all other age groups.

“Construction is almost the worst-case scenario as far as hearing conservation,” says Brad Witt, director of hearing conservation at Honeywell Safety Products in Smithfield, R.I. “It’s situations with lots of intermittent noise. It’s not like you work in a factory and put on hearing protection first thing and leave it on all day. In construction, it’s in and out and in and out, and you might be doing something quiet but the contractor next to you suddenly starts up something loud. It’s a very difficult environment as far as hearing protection.”

Research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States has found a typical 25-year-old carpenter has the hearing of a non-noise-exposed 50 year old.

There might be less compliance with young workers wearing hearing protection in the construction industry due to a lack of training, says Mitchell. Construction is not the highest profit industry, so it does not have as much money dedicated to training, he says.

“The construction industry could definitely stand to do a better job, especially of informing their young workers of the long-term risks that exist through not wearing your hearing protection,” says Mitchell.

BUT WHY?

So why aren’t young workers wearing hearing protection? One reason may be the “illusion of invincibility,” says Witt. 

“That young worker who walks in the door kind of thinking that they’re Superman almost,” he says. “They just don’t feel they are personally susceptible to noise damage. And it’s really a fantasy attitude and it comes across in comments like, ‘I’m used to the noise,’ ‘It’s not really that bad,’ ‘It doesn’t really bother me that much,’ but those are all just fallacies.”

While the brain can grow accustomed to loud noise, the ears are unable to do so and they just lose hearing, explains Witt.

It’s important that a good example is being set in the workplace for younger workers. Older workers and supervisors need to be wearing their hearing protection. Supervisors also need to make it clear that this is a job requirement — not something that’s nice to do, says Jamie Hall, COO of Safe Work Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“It requires more diligence from a supervisor in the early days of a person’s employment that they are very clear that this is a practise that might not seem natural, but it’s a requirement and after a while it becomes the norm,” he says. “Like with most PPE (personal protective equipment), it’s just getting into the habit.”

If a company sets a strong culture of safety, young workers are likely to follow.

“I find more and more with the younger culture nowadays, they are more likely to buy-in to what we are trying to sell as safety leaders,” says Mitchell. “I think kids are more likely to listen to what they’re told.”

Research conducted by Safe Work Manitoba last year found that young workers — especially young males — are more likely to take risks on the job, says Hall. This attitude may contribute to not wearing hearing protection because noise is not as obvious as physical hazards.

“The concern becomes that much greater to reinforce those good practices because it’s one thing if I can cut my finger or break my leg versus something that’s going to affect me in years to come and is progressive. But every incremental exposure can have a damaging effect and a cumulative effect down the road,” says Hall.

A key reason why workers of all ages do not wear their hearing protection is that it affects their ability to do their job well, which may really hit home for young workers, says Witt.

“I can just imagine those younger workers are very focused on job performance, whether it’s to impress the employer or look as good or better than the co-worker next to you or whatever drives that. They just (see) hearing protection as being an obstacle to job performance,” he says.

The temporary nature of many young workers’ jobs — whether it be just for the summer or contract jobs throughout the year — may have an impact on their likelihood to wear hearing protection. For one, training may not be as robust for temporary workers as it is for permanent employees.

“They know there is the potential they may not end up with a long-term employee… A lot may end up working for their competition. It’s the old complex of ‘How much money do we want to dedicate to that person knowing we might not get a return on this?’” Mitchell says.  

But it really comes down to the employer level, says Hall, noting there are certainly employers out there who don’t consider whether the worker is temporary or permanent; they all receive the same high-level training.

Secondly, moving from job to job makes it harder to get PPE-related habits to stick. 

“You might spend two months at this site and then you move to the next site…. And so, in that sense, it’s always a changing work environment as opposed to the factory workers at one location,” says Witt.

Lastly, temp work can psychologically affect young workers and their commitment to wearing hearing protection.

“Because the negative effects are gradual, the young worker might say, ‘Well, I am only here for a short duration, so being two to three months on the job is not going to affect me’ versus thinking, ‘I am going to be exposed to this day in and day out for years to come’ might cause different behaviour,” says Hall.

According to 3M, hearing loss due to noise is fastest during the first 10 years of exposure, making hearing protection especially important for young workers.

Once individuals realize they are losing their hearing, it’s too late; it’s gone forever, says Mitchell.

“If you are slowly losing your hearing starting at the age of 16 with your headphones pounding in your ear and then you move onto your job site with a 100-decibel (dB) compressor that you’re working next to all day for 15 years, as you reach the middle part of your career, you’ve already experienced minor hearing loss and you don’t even know it,” he says. “By the time you’re 60, you may have extreme hearing loss and there’s nothing that can be done.”

Noise-induced hearing loss is a serious, irreversible condition. It has a number of side effects, including lower achievement at work and a poor social life, says Witt.

“People who have hearing loss, they don’t like to go out to restaurants, to concerts or social settings. They just withdraw and put themselves in front of the TV and that becomes their social life,” he says.

Hearing loss can become a safety hazard. For example, a colleague may say to a worker “Watch out for that pipe,” but if the worker cannot hear the warning, his safety is in jeopardy, Witt says.

It may not be clear to young workers the level at which noises can do damage. For example, most provincial regulations have an eight-hour exposure limit around 85 dB, which is not very loud.

“If you have to raise your voice to talk with somebody, you are in an area where you could be experiencing noise damage because it’s long term,” says Mitchell. “It should be known it’s not as loud as people think to cause hearing loss.”

GET CREATIVE

Employers need to use some creative methods to make sure young workers understand the more they can do to protect themselves now, the better the outcome in their later years.

With young workers, you don’t want to “shove PPE down their throat” or bark orders at them; you want to build a relationship and provide coaching and mentoring, says Mitchell. You want to show them proof of the importance of wearing hearing protection, such as the legislative requirements, the results of hearing tests or the noise levels in the workplace.

It’s also important to remove any potential barriers to wearing hearing protection because if the worker doesn’t want to wear it, she will find any excuse. Make sure to offer a wide variety of earplugs and ensure they are comfortable and allow for good communication between workers, says Witt.

Employers can put recognition programs in place to praise those young workers who are wearing their hearing protection. Recognition programs run the gamut from very sophisticated with a third-party vendor to more ad-hoc. For example, employees may get points when they are spotted working safely that they can then save up to purchase items from a vendor’s online catalogue. On the other hand, a safety manager may be armed with a stack of $10 Tim Hortons’ gift cards that he hands out as he sees safe practices.

Of course an old-fashioned pat on the back goes a long way, too.

“You can provide recognition or some type of positive reinforcement, ‘You know, I found you wearing your earplugs and that’s something we value here.’ It’s about making sure workers know that,” says Hall.

There are many fun apps and tools out there that can demonstrate to workers the effects of noise-induced hearing loss. Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board launched an online tool at toneitdown.ca that answers the question: “How old are your ears?” The user listens to five different sounds and indicates whether or not he can hear them. At the end, the system identifies the biological age of the user’s ears — which may not be the same as the chronological age.

A tool like this offers a good opportunity to bring in some real life examples from the workplace. For instance, it can be very effective to have a more senior worker with hearing loss complete the exercise next to a young worker.

“Something like that can demonstrate, ‘You can hear it, but I don’t. And I should have worn hearing protection 30 years ago when I was starting and this is the result.’ It becomes very stark to realize they can hear this but the person next to them can’t,” says Hall. “It becomes a lot more real.”

The Hearing Loss Simulator app takes common sounds and illustrates how they sound to a person with hearing loss. Users are able to hear the difference between mild and severe cases of hearing loss.

There are a slew of audio demonstrations online that will show how an individual’s hearing loss is affected if he is working in noise for five, 10 or 15 years. The ability to simulate the effects of noise exposure in the workplace is unique — you can’t simulate an electrocution, for example — and employers should be making use of these tools in young worker orientation, says Witt.

“I love those demonstrations for training the young workers because it just fast forwards what it’s going to be like in a few years and if we can wake them up and say, ‘Hey, here’s what it’s going to be like so pay your price now by using hearing protection or pay later with hearing loss,’ it’s powerful stuff,” he says.

As long as apps and tools are not used in a scientific way to diagnose hearing loss, they can be great resources to create awareness in a fun way, says Hall.

Just like any other safety hazard, young workers should be encouraged to speak up if they have concerns about noise exposure. They should ask their employers if noise is measured in the workplace and if their ears could be damaged through exposure, says Hall.

In order to truly get behind hearing protection and pop those earplugs in every day, young workers must understand that invisible hazards are just as dangerous as visible ones.

“Noise causes no pain. There’s no visible trauma. Ears don’t bleed. Ears don’t bruise. It doesn’t leave any visible scars,” says Witt. “The worker could say, ‘I don’t hurt, so it must be all right.’ Isn’t it almost human nature to say, ‘As long as I don’t feel any pain, it must be alright’? Those are the habits we are trying to break early.”

Amanda Silliker is the editor of COS magazine.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Canadian Occupational Safety. 

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