A Hidden Epidemic

Preserving and promoting the protection of the UK’s hearing health is a primary focus for a newly formed group of specialists

Hearing health damage from exposure to excessive noise is an invisible, irreversible, largely untreatable yet wholly preventable set of conditions that continues to plague the UK workforce. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that more than one million workers in the UK are exposed to noise above the lower legal action value of 80dB (A) and therefore at risk of hearing damage. But many experts have put the risk to hearing health at much lower exposures of around 70dB(A), suggesting that significantly higher numbers could be at risk. 

Hearing loss is probably the most common outcome from noise exposure and has a significant effect on communication leading to exclusion and disadvantages in education, employment, social care and public life. Noisy workplaces also cause a safety risk as workers can’t hear what is going on around them, including audible warning alerts. 

In addition to workplace exposures to loud noise, many young people are now entering the workplace with pre-existing hearing loss from a youth spent using earphones (the iPod generation). In 2013, the European Committee for Electrical Standardisation set a new standard for personal music players, including smartphones, which must have a sound limit of 85dB(A). The user can choose to override this limit and increase the sound level to 100dB(A). If so, the user must be warned about the risks of listening at high volumes for every 20 hours of listening time.

At the other end of the generational gap, an increasingly ageing working population means that more people will be at work with accrued lifetime hearing impairment. And it’s not just about hearing loss – exposure to noise at work and existing hearing loss are closely linked to tinnitus, depression, risk of dementia, higher risk of increased blood pressure and other stress-related responses.

Many young people are now entering the workplace with pre-existing hearing loss from a youth spent using earphones

Live a quieter life

The UK Hearing Conservation Association (UKHCA) was officially set up in early 2019 by a number of founding members, which range from audiologists, acoustic engineers, music professionals, hearing protection manufacturers and suppliers, occupational hygienists, health and safety professionals and other professional bodies and charitable associations – all with the common passion of preserving and promoting the protection of the UK’s hearing health. The UKHCA was proud to see three of its founding members recognised for innovation and education in noise and hearing with EAVE, HearAngel and the LOCHER project among the winners and highly commended at the John Connell Awards in October 2019.

The UKHCA has also been invited by the World Health Organization to be a founding member of its World Hearing Forum and ‘Make Listening Safe’ working group. As a global network of stakeholders, the World Hearing Forum looks to promote and support the prevention of deafness and hearing loss through collaboration and multi-stakeholder action. The working group aims to reduce the risk of hearing loss posed by unsafe listening through global standards, public health campaigns and a regulatory framework for control of recreational sound exposure. The UKHCA is proud to contribute its expertise to these initiatives and collaborate with others to bring about change.

The UKHCA has created four main special interest groups in order to channel the expertise of its members and in order to identify, create and share best practice for these key areas where the need for hearing conservation is most important. These groups, which support the network’s pillars of interest and key areas of influence to affect hearing conservation, are:

Education for young people: this group will focus on providing education and influence for the younger generation who are critical for the future of hearing conservation. The aim will be to help them to have a healthier relationship with sound, through awareness raising and education, highlighting the risks of prolonged listening to music on personal devices, and generally placing more value on their hearing as a precious commodity.

At work: there still remains a significant risk of exposure to high levels of noise at many workplaces. This group will provide a much-needed improved focus on reduction of noise at source and a move away from solely relying on hearing protection, which has been shown to fail and leaves many workers vulnerable to hearing health damage. 

Lifestyle: the modern world can be very noisy and adds to our total noise dose over our lives. This group will explore ways to live a quieter life with a greater awareness of those risky hobbies and lifestyle choices in order to protect future hearing health, wellbeing and prevent other hearing-related health problems. 

Music and entertainment: an intriguing area that is difficult to solve with the usual reduction at source and control techniques, as sound is created for intention not as a by-product. Yet hearing health harm is a significant problem for those involved in this sector and can lead to a life of misery – early retirement from a lifelong passion is a harsh reality for many. 

Turn the noise down

Current UK noise risk at work management programmes are not working, as evidenced by insurance liability claims (£400m in 2014), costs to the NHS (around £500m a year) and the estimated total cost to the UK economy of around £5bn-7bn a year. There is also the additional cultural and social damage to the affected individuals. Typical hearing damage claim settlements are around £5,000-8,000, while the HSE estimates that the true cost for each claim is often an additional £7,000-29,000.

These figures are particularly disturbing given that noise induced hearing loss at work is virtually 100% preventable. 

Collaboration is key
The UKHCA is keen to work with other industry associations, companies or groups to help raise awareness, educate and help put best practice into place in all aspects of hearing conservation, noise reduction and through application of innovative technology and techniques. It recently produced some FAQs and guidance for a construction project via the ‘At work’ special interest group, and it is also working with a large infrastructure project to provide outreach to local schools on what noise is and how to reduce its impact, as part of the Education stream. As part of its work to influence the music and entertainment sector, the UKHCA is collaborating with the Institute of Acoustics and the UK Acoustics Network and with key music industry bodies to deliver Hear for Tomorrow on 8 April 2020 at the Royal College of Music.

The event aims to raise awareness of the effect of music on hearing health through sharing the latest research and solutions. The meeting will cover the scale of the problem, what we now know, and what can be done. World-leading specialists will deliver the cutting-edge knowledge to help inform decision-makers and influencers on wellbeing and health issues for amateur players, professional musicians, casual listeners and festival-goers.

The UKHCA also plans to develop some evidenced position papers on key topics of contention in the world of hearing conservation, for example on health surveillance, hearing protection quality and audibility. 

Find out more about the UKHCA at www.hearingconservation.org.uk