Baby boomers may joke about the decibel level of those rock concerts they attended years ago, but the truth is, all those years of noise abuse are taking a toll on their hearing. Combine that with younger generations weaned on blasting iPods, and it's no surprise that today's employers are encountering rapidly rising rates of hearing loss in the workplace. With evidence accumulating that hearing has an important impact on productivity, it's time for brokers to think about strategies for amplifying hearing screening and treatment benefits.

Employers need to know that hearing loss is increasingly common in the workplace. According to Sergei Kochkin, executive director of the Better Hearing Institute, "[T]here were 16.3 million people with hearing loss in the U.S. workforce in 2010. That means 60% of people with hearing loss are working. There is a lot that human resource professionals can do to help employees" with hearing issues.

Some of the risk factors for hearing loss are workplace noise, aging and chronic disease. CDC's National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health points out that work itself is one of the major culprits behind hearing loss - with 4 million people exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each day. And hearing loss is an important cause of workers' compensation claims, according to the CDC.

Chronic disease is also a factor in hearing loss. Hearing loss has been linked to heart disease, depression and diabetes. For example, diabetes impacts 8% of the population and people with diabetes are twice as likely to have hearing loss as those without it, according to diabetes.org.

 

Importance for employers

So, why should brokers talk with their clients about hearing loss? Well, employers should care for a lot of reasons, including employee job effectiveness, workplace productivity, and not the least, the Americans with Disabilities Act. As Laurel A. Christensen, chief audiology officer and VP, research and development of the GN ReSound Group says, "It's all about better communication for employees with customers, co-workers and bosses. Employees who can hear won't miss communications with the customer, and the employer will have more fully functioning employees who do the safest, best possible job."

Can you imagine trying to explain a complex task to a worker who only hears 60% to 80% of what's said? That's what it's like for managers trying to communicate with workers who have partial hearing loss. It's not easy from the employee's perspective either. Workers who cannot communicate effectively with supervisors and peers are more likely to withdraw and be depressed, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

Closely related to job effectiveness are workplace productivity and the ability of the person to work. According to BHI, people with untreated hearing loss lose as much as $30,000 in income annually, depending on their degree of hearing impairment.

 

 

Greenberg, RN, MPH, is a health policy consultant in Washington, D.C.

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