Can You Hear Me Now? Occupational Hearing Loss, 2004-2010: From 2004 to 2010, the Manufacturing and Utilities Sectors Had the Highest Rates of Occupational Hearing Loss of All Sectors Listed at the Two-Digit Level in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS); Primary Metal Manufacturing Had the Highest Rate at the Three-Digit Level

Article excerpt

Occupational hearing loss is a condition that results from exposure to noise or to nonnoise agents in a work environment. For example, loggers might experience hearing loss due to the loudness of their chainsaws, and professional disk jockeys might suffer hearing loss through listening to constant loud music. Occupational hearing loss continues to be a critical issue in the safety and health community. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 30 million workers are exposed to noise levels high enough to cause irreversible hearing loss. An additional 9 million workers are at risk of hearing loss from nonnoise agents, (1) such as organic solvents, certain metals, and carbon monoxide. (2) Sounds above 90 decibels can be harmful enough to cause hearing loss, especially when the exposure lasts for an extended time. (See exhibit 1.) Without preventative measures, many occupations--from assembly linesman, to airport baggage handler, to orchestra conductor--can experience permanent hearing loss from sources of noise in the workplace.

This article begins by relating the history of occupational hearing loss regulation and then goes on to analyze the most recent hearing loss data available. The article is the first to use illness data exclusively from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, the Bureau) to document trends in occupational hearing loss by industry. Among the topics covered are how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) recordkeeping guidelines helped establish the BLS data, what caveats there are in those data, and which industries have high rates of hearing loss.

BLS hearing loss data

The Bureau provides annual statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses on the basis of employer reports. Categories of occupational injury and illness are defined by OSHA. Prior to 2004, the OSHA recordkeeping log did not separately identify hearing loss from other illnesses, so the Bureau lacked comprehensive data on the condition. Any hearing loss data before 2004 were captured in the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) case and demographic data, a dataset that comprises only cases that involved at least 1 day away from work. Only a small fraction of recordable hearing loss cases involve days away from work. (3)

In 2002, OSHA added a specific hearing loss column to the agency's 300 recordkeeping form, used by employees to record workplace injuries and illnesses. (4) OSHA cited the following reasons for the addition:

1. To improve the nation's statistical information on occupational hearing loss;

2. To facilitate analysis of hearing loss data at individual workplaces;

3. To improve the agency's ability to assess this common occupational disorder.

The effective date of OSHA's final rule was January 1, 2003. As a result of OSHA's actions, the SOII was able to capture hearing loss cases and began producing counts and rates by industry in 2004, releasing survey year 2004 data in November 2005.

The SOII

The SOII estimates the number and the incidence rates of nonfatal recordable workplace injuries and illnesses on the basis of the OSHA recordkeeping logs kept by employers. Every year, a random sample of establishments is chosen across states, industries, and employment size categories for the SOII. Estimates (5) are then produced from the data provided by the establishments. In 2010, there were approximately 3.1 million recorded injuries and illnesses in private industry, of which only about 5 percent were illnesses. Of these illnesses, about 12 percent were hearing loss cases.

Data for injuries and illnesses are provided to the Bureau in the first 6 months of the year following the incident, and estimates are produced annually. Because of this time line, illnesses with long latency periods or illnesses that cannot be directly linked to a work environment are difficult to capture in the SOII. …