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...


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One of the largest and best-known manufacturers of sirens is the Federal Signal Corp. I contacted Federal Signal and was directed to Jennifer Sherman, deputy general counsel. I asked her a number of questions related to the subject at hand and she responded: "Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the issue of firefighter hearing loss and tinnitus. The safety and health of firefighters and the public is a high priority for Federal Signal. Federal Signal designs and manufactures its products to help emergency workers get to fires and accidents safely and quickly. Sixteen lawsuits involving 1,000 plaintiffs have been filed against Federal Signal. It is unfortunate that some lawyers have inaccurately characterized our products as creating a safety risk for firefighters.

"Scientific studies of the hearing levels of firefighters show that, while some firefighters have hearing loss, their hearing as a group is no different than persons of the same age who have never been exposed to occupational noise. It is not surprising that some firefighters have hearing loss. There are many causes of hearing loss, including age, family history, systemic diseases and childhood infections. Approximately 25% of all men entering the workplace already have hearing losses. Further, many firefighters have served in the military or have other noise exposure away from the workplace. …Simply because firefighters have hearing loss, however, does not mean that these hearing losses were caused by their jobs.

"Scientific studies of noise levels in the fire service are well below the level considered safe, and too small to cause hearing loss. These studies have been conducted in several large cities, including a six-month survey performed in Philadelphia, PA, by a research scientist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and a recent project conducted in Chicago by the Illinois Department of Labor. These results are not surprising. While some equipment used by firefighters is certainly loud, the (amount) of time each day that this equipment is used is extremely limited, unlike the work practices in other industries.

"You asked about Federal Signal's efforts to insure product safety. Almost 20 years ago, Federal Signal participated in efforts to encourage (apparatus) manufacturers to mount sirens in locations (on fire apparatus) that reduce the sound levels in the cabs of fire trucks. This effort led to the NFPA standard on siren locations. Federal Signal also educated the firefighting community about the need to consider hearing conservation programs. The responsibility for occupational safety and health lies with the employer, and the employee also has an obligation in this area. FEMA has long published guidelines recommending that fire departments consider implementation of formal hearing conservation programs. Many fire departments have made hearing protection or communication headsets available for years.

"Federal Signal has reviewed alternate siren designs. Sirens are manufactured to meet standards set by state and federal agencies. These standards reflect the need to warn drivers and pedestrians. To date, no alternative siren design has been effective in insuring the safety of emergency responders and other motorists. The key to reducing noise levels for firefighters is the effective use of hearing protection or communication headsets."

Hearing damage and tinnitus caused by occupational noise exposure may or may not be compensable in the state where you work. There may also be a statute of limitations from the time an injury is reported to the time that a legal action is taken and an injured plaintiff may not be able to advance his or her case through the legal system. It may also be difficult to find an attorney who is knowledgeable about hearing damage and tinnitus injury claims in the field of emergency responders. Choose your attorney carefully if you are contemplating any legal action for hearing damage or tinnitus.

There Is Help And Hope

When I was severely stricken with tinnitus, I thought that there was no hope for me. I was examined by several ear, nose and throat (ENT) physicians. They all told me basically the same story after examination and testing: "Yes, you have hearing damage and tinnitus. There is nothing that can be done for the tinnitus. Go home and learn to live with it."

That type of prognosis from an ENT is not what the tinnitus sufferer needs to hear. The patient needs to have help and hope. Fortunately, ENT physicians are becoming more educated about tinnitus and are offering that much needed help and hope through referrals to tinnitus clinics and/or prescribing medications that can reduce the anxiety that tinnitus causes.