Hearing Damage And Tinnitus In Emergency Responders

Robert M. Winston shares the results of his research on the need for hearing protection by firefighters and other emergency responders.


I have hearing damage and tinnitus that has been documented as an occupational injury caused by high-decibel sounds directly related to on-the-job noise generators like sirens, air horns, diesel motors, loud radios and power tools, and high-decibel fire alarm systems inside buildings. I was an...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

Noise And Hearing Loss

Randy L. Tubbs, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), stated, "Hearing loss from occupational noise exposure is a completely preventable disease. This premise is based on the simple fact: if we are able to stop excessive noise from entering the ear, no loss of hearing can result from an occupational noise source. Even though this statement has been accepted as truth for a long time, firefighters, EMS and law enforcement personnel continue to lose hearing as a result of their occupation, despite regulations and education. Noise-induced hearing loss is an irreversible, sensorineural condition that progresses with exposure. …This noise-induced hearing loss is caused by damage to nerve cells of the inner ear (cochlea) and cannot be treated medically."

The documentation of noise exposure in the fire service was first reported in the 1970s. NIOSH began its involvement with firefighter noise exposure in 1981 with the Newburgh, NY, Fire Department; in 1982 with the FDNY; in 1985 in the Memphis Fire Department; and in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire in 1988. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) worked with NIOSH at two annual IAFF conventions in 1984 and 1987 to obtain data about hearing damage. The IAFF produced a booklet, Fire and Emergency Service Hearing Conservation Program Manual, that recognizes the problems of noise-induced trauma and outlines a program to reduce and/or prevent the occupational noise-induced hearing damage associated with sirens, air horns, loud motors and other noises associated with emergency response services.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1500 addresses noise exposure to firefighters: "To comply with NFPA 1500, a fire department MUST provide hearing protection for all firefighters riding on apparatus who are subject to noise levels above 90 decibels. A decibel is a unit of measurement used to express sound levels. According to OSHA standards, firefighters are often exposed to noise levels well above 90 decibels." (This is a noise level that is damaging to humans.) "NFPA 1500 requires that a fire department must establish a hearing conservation program …"

Tubbs states: "When people think of hearing loss and partial deafness, they immediately think about a quiet world that they will be forced to live in. In some cases that cannot be further from the truth. Few people realize that noise-induced deafness results in a loud, annoying sound inside one's head that just never quits. It interferes with sleep, watching TV, listening to people and reading a book, almost all facets of daily living. So, loss of hearing does not equal a quiet day of fishing during our retirement years. It can be a screaming inside our heads that never stops." (Tinnitus!)

An even lesser known problem with tinnitus and hearing damage is hyperacusis, which is a heightened sensitivity to sound, especially loud sounds. People with hyperacusis cannot tolerate such noises. They may not even be able to tolerate "normal" everyday sounds like conversation. Because of my tinnitus problem, I find that noisy locations like many restaurants and movie theaters are not tolerated well or at all. I avoid them. I also carry and use earplugs that were specifically molded for my ears. These small implements are designed to attenuate excessive harmful noise.

Legal Issues

Since hearing damage and/or tinnitus can sometimes be directly correlated to noise-induced trauma from tools and equipment that are required and are an integral part of emergency response agencies, documenting occupational injuries to one's physical hearing system is important. Proof of occupational noise induced hearing loss and/or tinnitus can lead to disability retirement, litigation or both.