Mining, military, music, construction, manufacturing, carpentry… all these occupations have one thing in common: they’re among the noisiest professions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 22 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work, making hearing loss the most common work-related injury. The Department of Labor estimates $242 million is spent annually on worker’s compensation for hearing loss disability.
But even quiet workplaces aren’t any guarantee you won’t be working with colleagues who have hearing loss — or won’t develop it yourself somewhere along the way. Regardless of what side of the desk you’re sitting on, hearing loss in the workplace presents a unique set of challenges and implications for employees and employers alike.
Working with hearing loss
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 48 million Americans report some degree of hearing loss. Of them, 60 percent are either in the workplace or an educational setting.
Besides making communication difficult, untreated hearing loss can actually cost you money. According to a study by the Better Hearing Institute, those with unaided hearing loss earned on average $20,000 less annually than those who wore hearing aids.
So how can you even the playing field? First, have your hearing evaluated by a hearing healthcare professional. If you have hearing loss that can be treated with hearing aids, buy the ones that fit your lifestyle and budget. If you are unable to afford the technology you need:
• Ask if your hearing center offers a payment plan or foundation to help those with demonstrated financial need.
• Check with your employer to see if you qualify for Vocational Rehabilitation. To find what hearing health services are covered and if you qualify, visit your home state website or search the internet for “vocational rehabilitation” and your state name.
How employers can help
It isn’t just the hard-of-hearing who are losing out. The Better Hearing Institute study also revealed that untreated hearing loss costs the United States as much as $18 billion in form of unrealized federal income taxes. That’s a lot of money that could be used for public education, defense and infrastructure, not to mention programs for the sick and needy. It’s also a good reason for employers to work with employees who have hearing disabilities.
“As a business owner and employer, there is absolutely nothing as valuable as good staff,” Adrian Hill, co-author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, Succeeding at Work with Hearing Loss, said. “It is harder to find than you might imagine. I simply would not tolerate anyone who hindered the effectiveness and motivation of a good employee.”
If your workplace is noisy, you probably already know and have implemented hearing protection protocols required by OSHA. But what about those employees who have hearing loss — regardless of the onsite noise levels?
In addition to your legal obligations of providing a equal opportunity workplace under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Hill recommends employers work with their employees who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to draft a statement to send to the rest of the staff. In it, include concrete guidelines for how everyone can work together effectively. Additionally, work with your employee to identify a quiet place to work, preferably in an office with walls and a door.
“Stress the benefits to everyone,” Breaking the Sound Barrier co-author, Gordon Eddie, said. “If it’s easier (for deaf and hard-of-hearing employees) to hold discussions at their desk, conversations will be quicker and everyone can get their jobs done faster. That’s good for the team, which is good for the company.”
How colleagues can help
Even if you aren’t the boss, you can still help create a positive workplace environment when deaf or hard-of-hearing coworkers are present:
• They may use lip-reading skills to better understand the conversation, so face them when you speak. Make sure your face is visible and, if possible, well-lit during the conversation.
• Speak clearly, not loudly, and don’t jumble or slur your words.
• Keep phone calls as short as possible and confirm key points at the end of the call.
• As much as possible, be mindful of extraneous workplace noise, especially that which might occur right by their desk or office. Making an effort to avoid impromptu conversations or talking over office partitions will go a long way in creating a comfortable working environment for everyone.
If you have normal hearing, treat those who have hearing loss with respect and give them the tools they need to be successful members of the team. If you have problems with your own hearing, know your rights in the workplace and seek treatment from a hearing healthcare professional you can trust. Creating a pleasant, effective work environment takes effort on the part of everyone, regardless of your ability to hear.
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