Unwanted sound and excessive levels of noise invade our daily lives both at work and in our social environment. This creates not only a nuisance, but can also harm health in a number of ways. The most obvious effect is hearing loss – a significantly disabling and isolating sensory deprivation.
Hearing loss is irreversible and when noise-induced effects are added to the usual age-related deterioration, early deafness and disability can have a profound impact on people’s lives. Tinnitus is another health effect where individuals hear sounds or noises with no external stimulus. This syndrome is associated with hearing loss and exposure to noise and can be detrimental to a sufferer’s health and mental wellbeing. Noise has also been shown to increase hypertension, contribute to fatigue, increase stress levels and cause loss of concentration.
With an ageing working population and an increasing number of young people entering the workplace with pre-existing hearing loss due to social and leisure noise exposures, employers need to think carefully about how to deal with noise and hearing at work
Several initiatives are emerging which aim to highlight the importance of preventing hearing loss and improve understanding of unwanted sound in our environment.
In pursuit of silence
We live with noise every day. Most of this is unwanted: the noise of traffic in the street, the noise of muzak when we are shopping, the noise in factories and other places where we work, the noise of machines in our homes.
Quiet Mark, the International Eco-Award Scheme for excellence in quiet product design, part of the Noise Abatement Society, has produced a film titled In Pursuit of Silence (below), which aims to make us aware of the impact of noise on our lives. It demonstrates what we can do to reduce unnecessary noise and to celebrate the benefit of silence. The film features scientists, composers, campaigners and a cast of people who everyday have to grapple with noise pollution or are trying to reduce it. It seeks to provide a wake-up call, urging people to take the health issues associated with excessive noise as seriously as they take those associated with smoking or unguarded machinery, or as seriously a social issue as litter. The producers are working with organisations such as retailer John Lewis to try to tackle our noisy society through providing quiet places in social settings such as cafes and producing quieter home products.
The film features scientists, composers, campaigners and a cast of people who every day have to grapple with noise pollution
An action plan on hearing loss
NHS England and the Department of Health published an Action Plan on Hearing Loss in March 2015. The plan was developed in collaboration with a number of organisations including the Health and Safety Executive and hearing loss charities.
The report identified multiple health and social issues associated with hearing loss and made recommendations for ways that health could be improved. A critical opportunity provided by this plan was a coordinated response to tackle hearing loss from a preventative perspective. Although this may seem an obvious focus for health and safety professionals, this is a step change for the NHS to address the future burden of health impacts today through an intervening approach.
HSE has responsibility for the regulations governing control of noise in the workplace. These regulations require employers to ensure workers are protected from harmful exposure to noise. The NHS England programme of work allows a cross-system approach to tackling the issue of noise exposure throughout a lifetime and from all sources; including work, leisure and social exposures. It provides an opportunity for relevant government, charity and others with vested interests such as insurers and health providers to work together and provide influence on this preventable disease.
The prevention task and finish group for this plan has identified a number of areas where we can make in-roads for sustainable preventative measures. These are outlined below.
An important aspect in preventing harm is an understanding of the problem in terms of health impact and cost. Having strong messages targeted at specific audiences to help get the message across is an important aim of the prevention group.
Intervention to address attitudes in young people is being explored through Dangerous Decibels, an education programme founded in the USA. The programme looks to educate primary school children about levels of sound and how to protect hearing.
New tests of hearing
Current tests of hearing loss generally rely on Pure Tone Audiometry, which tests an individual’s ability to hear pure tones under strict test conditions, but the prevention group is looking at the benefits of Otoacoustic Emissions Testing as an earlier indicator of exposure to noise before harm is realised and becomes irreversible.
This test is widely used in newborn hearing screening but could be applied to occupational settings.
Approaches to the prevention of hearing loss are being undertaken at cross-government and cross-system levels. These offer an holistic perspective on exposures and influences across our lives such as from noise at work, attitudes and perceptions from society, the environment we live and socialise in, and our own risk taking behaviours.
By working together to achieve a common goal we have a powerful opportunity to influence society and change attitudes and behaviours towards noise, this can have a real and positive impact on the prevention of early hearing loss and other damaging effects of noise on our health and environment.
Reducing noise in our lives and having respite helps us to value our hearing and enjoy the silence!
To organise a screening in your workplace of ‘In Pursuit of Silence’ click here
More about the action plan on hearing loss here
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