The youngest Baby Boomers are about to turn 60 years old, putting the majority of this generation in — if not close to — retirement age. And yet, recent studies show that Boomers still have a stronghold in the workforce with no plans of stopping any time soon. The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies released a report citing a recent study that revealed 49 percent of Baby Boomers were (or expected to) work past the age of 70 with no intentions to retire.
This increased longevity in the workforce brings an unlikely bedfellow: age-related hearing loss. This condition can impact professional performance and communication, prompting many to confront dealing with hearing loss in the workplace.
Hearing Loss As A Result Of Aging
The natural aging process itself wears on the inner ear cells, impacting their productivity and health. Over time, these cells decline in number, leaving less healthy cells to do the heavy lifting. The inner ear cells are responsible for receiving sound and turning it into sound information, in the form of electrical signals, which are then sent to the brain for processing. In the brain, the sound information is translated into meaning.
When we have less cells to work with, we are able to collect less sound and we send less information to the brain. The result is the experience of hearing loss. Instead of an overall lowering of volume, the earliest signs come in the form of trouble with speech clarity. Because we tend to lose access to certain frequencies, the sounds of speech become garbled, so it might sound as if everyone around you is mumbling. A red flag is noticing that you’re asking others to repeat themselves all the time, or when conversations become frustrating and exhausting because the brain is working harder to piece together the fragments of sound information into a coherent sentence.
Occupational Hearing Risks
Noise is another contributor to a decline in hearing health. Like aging, exposure to excessive noise will also damage the inner ear cells and lead to decline. Workplace noise is a primary contributor, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work.
Some industries also deal with ototoxic (harmful to the ear) chemicals that can impact hearing health. Manufacturing, agriculture, mining and textile companies are all industries where these sorts of substances are commonly used.
Workplace Safety And Hearing Hazards
One of the greatest impacts of hearing loss in an occupational setting is in how it affects safety. Ironically, the manufacturing and agriculture industries both carry higher than average risks to hearing and are simultaneously industries in which impaired hearing can result in real injury and even death.
On an assembly line or whenever a worker is interacting with heavy machinery, communication between employees is paramount to maintaining proper precautions.
Thankfully, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces standards to ensure that workers are protected from excessive noise exposure by instituting regulations like sound proofing, hearing protection and frequent breaks. Any irregularities can be reported to this federal authority for investigation.
The Impacts Of Hearing Loss On Job Performance
Aside from safety, there are other implications of hearing loss within the workplace. Among workers, its reduction in communication ease and accuracy has real ramifications. The Journal of Audiology published a study that showed participants self-reported difficulties understanding conversations, following instructions and participating in workplace meetings.
With the rise of remote working, the adaption of video conferencing has alleviated some of the burden previously felt by people with hearing loss who were required to communicate via the telephone, which is notoriously challenging for those living with hearing loss. Adding the context of facial expressions and mouth movements can help relieve the difficulty of discerning speech clarity for some.
Hearing Aids Support Workers
Both age-related and noise-induced hearing loss remain irreversible and both are progressive. However, hearing loss solutions like hearing aids and cochlear implants have shown to improve workplace satisfaction and employee performance.
Treating hearing loss can lead to positive effects like improved communications with colleagues. Studies have shown that hearing aid users report fewer instances of miscommunication with co-workers, better speech understanding, reduced listening effort and better workplace interactions overall compared to those with untreated hearing loss.