The popular conception of hospitals, clinics and dental offices is that they are low-noise environments. But within certain health care settings, noise levels can be so high that they can lead to hearing loss among those who work there.
A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that rates of hearing loss for workers in all sub-sectors of the Health Care and Social Assistance category (except for hospitals) were higher than the benchmark chosen for the study. Even within hospitals though, workers in certain areas, such as operating rooms and emergency rooms, suffered hearing loss at unexpected rates.
Health care workers who are most at risk
The study found that workers in two health care environments were most susceptible to hearing loss:
Orthopedic clinics - Cast cutters using orthopedic tools routinely experience noise at levels between 95 to 106 dBA.
Emergency rooms - Noise levels in this environment can often reach 85 dBA. The elevated noise level stems from monitor alarms, slamming doors, overhead speakers, ringing telephones, the TV set in the waiting area, and other sources
Other health care environments where noise levels often exceed NIOSH's recommended time-weighted noise exposure limit of 85 dBA per eight hours include:
- Dental offices
- Hospital kitchens
- Hospital laundry facilities
- Intensive care units
- Helicopter emergency medical units
However, high noise levels are not the only cause of hearing loss among health care workers. Regular exposure to certain drugs can increase the susceptibility to hearing loss, such as anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, antimalarial and antirheumatic medications.
Minimizing hearing loss risks
Health care workers, hospital management, and those involved in designing and fitting out health care facilities can all play a role in reducing the risk of hearing loss:
- Those who work in these health care settings should consider using noise-cancelling headsets or ear plugs when possible.
- Hospital management should turn down the volume of phone bells, alarm systems, and loud speaker systems, and install floor mats where practicable. Management should also provide closed-system administering systems for certain drugs, the provision of disposable gloves and single-use gowns for nurses administering those drugs, and a blame-free reporting environment regarding spills of dangerous drugs.
- Architects and specifiers focusing on the design of health care facilities should also consider using acoustical treatment on walls and ceilings. They should also design facilities to allow for locating noise-generating gear to equipment rooms rather than operating rooms, and for the remote location of compressors away from controlled-temperature rooms.
Workers in the health care sector who have suffered work-related hearing loss may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. Speak with an experienced attorney if you have questions about a claim.