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Firefighters' lawsuits shine spotlight on hearing safety

Contributed by | Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Firefighters and other public safety officers face risk every day on the job. When there are fires, gas leaks, building collapses or countless other critical situations, they run toward danger when everyone else is running away. But there is one danger they shouldn’t have to face on the job: the danger of hearing loss.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related injury in the United States. There are more than one million firefighters in the U.S., and according to a 2007 University of California study, 40 percent of those firefighters are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Unfortunately, decibel levels of the sirens and other equipment are often at or above levels which can cause irreversible hearing loss and tinnitus. Add in noisy water pumping equipment, power tools and squawking radios and one can see why firefighters are among the professions with the highest percentage of NIHL. 

firefighters and hearing loss
There are more than one million firefighters in
the U.S. Forty percent of those are at risk of 
developing noise-induced hearing loss due to 
consistent and excessive siren exposure. 

But now, with a flood of lawsuits across the country, the hearing health of firefighters is taking center stage. In Buffalo, N.Y., 193 firefighters filed suit against several truck manufacturers as well as against the Federal Signal Corporation, the maker of the Q-Siren. The Q-Siren, as a matter of fact, is the common factor in scores of lawsuits all over the U.S. The reason? Reaching upwards of 120 decibels (dB), the mechanical Q-Siren produces sound waves that are more focused and penetrating than that of an electronic siren. Fire departments tend to favor it because its volume helps to clear traffic in spite of today’s heavily sound insulated cars, but several of the lawsuits allege that its poor design leads to hearing loss. According to group of Chicago firefighters who filed suit, the siren could have been designed with a higher frequency, making it safer for use.

Fire truck manufacturers have also been the target of lawsuits. In a 2013 Pittsburgh lawsuit, as well as in one filed in New York City in 2015, it is alleged that poorly insulated truck compartments were at least partly to blame for the plaintiffs’ hearing loss. In the case of one of the lawsuits, the compartments were deemed to “invite excessive noise." The same problem occurred with vehicles that were not climate controlled; the windows needed to be rolled down in warmer weather, which meant no protection from loud sirens.

Lack of organizational support is a reason a lot of firefighters don’t have hearing protection, according to a study of 400 firefighters in 35 departments done by OiSaeng Hong, director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing Program at UCSF. If the funds aren’t there, the equipment is not purchased. Costing thousands of dollars apiece, noise cancelling headsets are simply not in the budgets of many fire departments. In one fire department Hong studied, there was no hearing protection offered and the percentage of firefighters with symptoms of hearing loss was “significantly higher."

Unfortunately even when hearing protection is provided, the fact is sometimes firefighters just don’t wear it. According to Hong, firefighters are most influenced by their peers when it comes to protecting their hearing. They also look to their chief or commander as a critical influence. Yet another factor in the choice to wear hearing protection is perception of susceptibility; in other words if they do not perceive that there is a risk to their hearing, they won’t wear hearing protection. This is where hearing conservation programs in fire departments can be particularly effective in arming firefighters with the knowledge they need to protect their hearing health.

But even the best hearing protection has its limits for firefighters due to the nature of the job. For safety purposes it isn’t worn at certain times, such as when fighting a fire. “We have hearing protection in the form of headsets, so when we are on the vehicle our hearing is protected,” said Lieutenant John Staker, Sharonville Ohio firefighter and paramedic. “But when you are on the ground running equipment, you have to be able to hear the guy next to you. That’s when things get loud.”

Knowing the risks and advocating for safer working conditions when it comes to hearing health is crucial for firefighters. Lobbying for insulated cabs, proper mounting placement of sirens and the use of deflector shields so most of the siren sound is sent forward instead of backward into the cab could help reduce the noise to a safer level. Even something as simple as having earplugs available for use when operating noisy equipment within the fire station could help reduce the risk of hearing damage due to hazardous noise levels while on the job.

While the lawsuits seem to be garnering headlines, there is a potential silver lining: More attention to hearing health will hopefully mean that more fire departments will implement hearing conservation programs. In Sharonville, at least, they are on the right track: “We get our hearing tested every year,” said Staker. “Those who don’t pass have to go to an audiologist.”

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