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National Conference to Prevent Hearing Loss in Construction:



MR. FOWLER: Thank you very much, President O'Sullivan, for those words.

In any organization, the commitment to any kind of a project or any kind of a program starts at the top, and I think you can all see that the commitment to taking care of workers, laborers, starts at the top and works its way on down, and we are very pleased that you spent this time with us today. We know that you have a very busy schedule, and we very much appreciate it.

Following the General President is never easy, and we do have a sacrificial lamb today.


MR. FOWLER: So, Bill, are you ready for this?

MR. DUKE: Yes, I am.

MR. FOWLER: Hearing loss is not just an abstract concept. For someone who has a significant hearing loss, there is a real impact on every aspect of that person's life. Unfortunately, as you just heard from the General President, it happens to too many of our laborers, including our most talented workers.

Our next speaker, Bill Duke, has been a Laborer since 1965. He worked in the field for 14 years and became a training director in Utah in 1979. In 1987, he became the director of the Training Fund for Oregon, Southwest Washington, Idaho, and Utah. In 1994, he was recruited by LIUNA to direct the newly established National Apprenticeship Program for Construction Craft Laborers, one of the Union's most important initiatives.

Bill is obviously a very talented and dedicated laborer, but he is speaking at this conference because he has had a significant hearing loss, and we asked him to tell you about the impact of that loss on his life. He is here to do that today. Would you please welcome to the stand, Bill Duke.


MR. DUKE: Pres. O’Sullivan, VP Sabitoni and conferees, I appreciate the opportunity to shed a little light on what it’s like living with a hearing impairment. I could explain it in two words---IT SUCKS!

But that’s too easy.

I should begin with saying that my wife should be standing here telling you about what life is like living with a person that is hearing impaired. Hearing loss affects not just the individual with the loss, but it affects your loved ones and everyone around you. I am fortunate in that my wife is very understanding and patient with me, but even she sometimes gets tired of hearing "huh" or "what" or seeing that puzzled look on my face when I don’t hear what was said. And what is even worse is when I respond with something that is totally off the subject or irrelevant to what the conversation was all about.

And before I get started, if I am talking too loud or not loud enough, please signal me with your hand. People with hearing problems are not able to determine how loud they are talking. We often speak loudly so that we can hear ourselves. When talking into a microphone we have no idea how high or low the volume is.

Communication, Communication, Communication. We are told all our lives that communication is the key to a successful relationship. As you all know there are two parts to communicating, listening and speaking.

Well it shouldn’t surprise you then that those with a hearing loss have a much more difficult time having successful relationships, because communicating, with their spouse, children, co-workers and the public in general is extremely difficult and very frustrating at times.

My story begins in the late 60s when I began my career as a union construction laborer. As was the case with most new laborers coming into the industry at that time, I had no prior training before going to work and therefore I did many unsafe things, which I have had to pay the price for. I worked as a laborer in the summers while I went to school. I was told by a fellow worker when I first went to work, “never say you don’t know how to do something” and because of that poor advice I not only broke several pieces of equipment, but I hurt myself on a few occasions.

I knew nothing about safety unless it was obvious. You must remember that when I started working construction it was pre-OSHA and the only pieces of safety equipment I was ever given was a hard hat and safety glasses. One day my foreman asked if I knew how to run a jack hammer (90 lb. breaker) I was tired of doing clean-up and other simple jobs that I didn’t feel made the best use of my many talents, so I said “yes.” After some instruction, I became the jack hammer man. And despite my thin build I was surprisingly good at what I was doing. That jackhammer and I became partners and I continued to use it for most of that first summer.

Over the next three summers I was repeatedly assigned to several jobs using a jackhammer. There was one job that I will never forget, in 1969 two other laborers and myself worked through the summer inside a metal building removing the concrete floor. Three jackhammers operating 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, inside a metal building. I remember after working all day the roaring sensation in my ears which took forever to stop and I couldn’t hear what others were saying or other noises for hours after working. That was definitely a sign that the noise was too loud, but I had no clue that what I was doing was hurting me or that the consequences were going to affect me in every aspect of my life for as long as I lived. I now know that I damaged the cochlea in my ears that summer and destroyed my hearing. The result was nerve deafness, which went undetected for many years. Because of my hearing loss I began the process of having to have the volume of everything turned up including my music, the TV, and I frequently asking people to speak up My most frequent response to a comment, question, or instruction was huh or what did you say.

It was not until 1983 (almost 14 years later) and I left the field to work as a training director that someone finally confronted me about my hearing and strongly suggested that I have it tested. I finally relented and had it tested just to please my boss, I can’t remember what the percentage of loss was, but the audiologist suggested that I get hearing aids, one for each ear. This was extremely upsetting, I was hoping that they would find nothing wrong and that I was just not listening or that my ears needed cleaning, anything but hearing aids. I was 34 years old and the only people I knew with hearing aids were old people. This was a real blow to me, I was single, dating a lot, and I was a vain, man. There is a stigma that goes with wearing a hearing aid. Coping and coming to grips with hearing loss is a very sensitive treatment both physically and psychologically.

Even though I was told that my hearing loss was enough to warrant two hearing aids, I only bought one. For two reasons: numbr one, I could only afford one, it was $400 and my insurance wouldn’t cover it, and the other reason was, I figured that if I only had one I could hide it by keeping my hair long enough to cover my ears. I got the hearing aid and after about two weeks and a few remarks from my friends, I put it in my dresser drawer and refused to wear it. I went for several years without wearing that hearing aid, except when I attended meetings. But even then I would usually have a co-worker with me to ensure that he/she could hear those things that I couldn’t, and after the meetings they would fill me in on what I didn’t hear. And for a long time people would enable me in this matter and I got away without wearing hearing aids. People that were around me regularly just became used to talking to me louder than they would others.

For 6 years after that first hearing test I went through several stages before I finally accepted the fact that I had a hearing impairment. First there was denial that I really had a hearing problem and I even believed that the 1st audiologist was a fraud and just wanted to sell me a hearing aid. Often I would pretend that I heard what others were saying and sometimes I would get away with it, sometimes I wouldn’t. After denial, I projected: accusing others of mumbling or complained about the bad acoustics in a room. (and I still project)

I went through an anger stage. I would get angry with others for talking so softly. On several occasions I got up and left workshops because I felt the facilitator was talking too softly. For a long time I was angry with the contractors that didn’t provide me with hearing protection.

I also went through a stage of feeling sorry for myself.

Eventually I learned to accept my impairment, but it took a long time.

My acceptance came about six years after that first test, with my hearing getting worse, I was sitting in a meeting and when the meeting adjourned I was exhausted from trying to hear and understand what was said in that meeting, and complained about not being able to hear the proceedings.

It is important that I point out; that for the hearing impaired, listening is not just a passive activity, it requires us to actively attempt to fill in what we miss and predict what is going to be said. And even with hearing aids, it takes a lot of energy for us to hear what’s said in meetings and other functions. The situation often depends on where the speaker is sitting and whether that person’s voice projects or not. If I am in a meeting where the speaker walks around and doesn’t face me, I am in trouble, even with hearing aids.

Anyway, my boss in 1988, following that meeting said “get your hearing tested and start using your hearing aids.” I again had my hearing tested my hearing loss had progressed and I ended up having to buy some new aids. I was fitted for “in the canal” hearing aids, which cost me $1,000 each (my job was on the line and I was worried about loosing it) and because you couldn’t see them, I began to wear one, but only one. It took about three more years until I started to wear both hearing aids and the only reason I did was because of a new job which required more meetings and it was now even more important that I hear what was being said.

The cause of my hearing loss is nerve deafness. The severity of my hearing loss is moderate. There is damage to the hair cells of the cochlea due to excessive noise, which has reduced my sensitivity to sound and I have difficulty in understanding certain levels of speech. I have a hard time hearing soft sounds. Hearing aids help with this part of my impairment because they magnify the sounds. I also have difficulty in the discrimination of sounds, which allows a person to distinguish one sound from another. Even with hearing aids, having a discrimination problem as well as a sensitivity problem, I still misunderstand a lot of what is being said. Because consonants are spoken at a higher pitch, they are often not heard and when that happens I misunderstand or don’t hear many things correctly. Words like Sue, chew, or shoe all sound the same to me and I hope you can imagine how this effects us during meetings and other conversations. Amplifying the loudness of the sound does not necessarily help a discrimination problem.

I also suffer from tinnitus, which in me was also caused by the loud noises that I endured in the construction industry. I have a constant ringing in my ears and my best description is a loud high-pitched hum.

My hearing loss is permanent and yes it will get worse as I age, just like everyone’s will, but since mine is damaged it will always be worse than yours.

Today, even with hearing aids it is hard to hear in a crowded room with a lot of background noise. It is often hard to hear others who are talking from a microphone; information coming over a loud speaker is also difficult to understand. Planes, trains, airports, or any public area, which uses an address system, it is hard for me to make out what is said. I often have to ask someone nearby what was just announced. People that talk with their hand to their mouth are difficult to hear and when a person turns their head or does not face me when talking will pretty much guarantee that I will not hear what is said. And there are many people that mumble or speak very softly and I just try to avoid all conversation with those people.

Telephones: Using a telephone with a hearing aid is often difficult, not only do I need to adjust the volume correctly (if there is a volume control but I can’t hold the phone directly on my ear. If I do, this is what I hear. I bought an adapter that I carry with me so that I can take my hearing aid and put the adapter over the hearing piece of a public phone. Also, my employer installed a special handset on my phone at work. Another problem we have to deal with almost on a daily basis is loud noises. We have to be very careful of high noise exposure because we are highly susceptible to more noise damage.

I love to swim and when I do, the hearing aids have to come out because if you get them wet, they must be sent in to be repaired. Therefore the whole time I am swimming I cannot effectively communicate with others Same with hot tubs, or anything that would allow moisture in the hearing aid. They must come out.

From the time I knew that I needed hearing aids in 1983 until 3 years ago I was a single man and therefore my hearing didn’t have an affect on any serious relationship. 4 years ago I started dating and eventually married. This wonderful woman has only known me with a hearing impairment, I am lucky, I have known some couples that their relationship was severely damaged because of one or the other becoming hearing impaired and loosing their ability to communicate normally. And as I said at the beginning, “your communication with others is severely hampered when you have a hearing impairment.” And it can greatly affect any relationship. It absolutely amazes me today, even though it took me many years to actually wear the hearing aids, how many people admit to me that they have trouble hearing, but won’t wear an aid or even have their hearing checked. And I know that must be having an effect on their relationship with others.

Hearing aids are a part of my life today they will not restore my hearing to normal, but they are a Godsend for people like me and until they come up with something better, I will always use them.

It is still difficult to watch TV with my wife or other people because I need the volume up louder than she does or that the others are comfortable with. Going to a movie and hearing what is said on the screen is difficult because of the speakers and acoustics and because of the loss of the discrimination part of hearing. I will miss much of what is said. Trying to have a quiet intimate conversation with my wife over dinner in a restaurant is not possible. If she lowers her voice to say something for my ears only, I will usually say HUH, because of the background noise, I can’t hear her.

Many situations that I am in today related to my work is difficult. If I am speaking and start taking questions from the floor, it is difficult for me to hear the questions and some of that is the acoustics, background noise, or could be the speaker placements. It all adds up and I will often have to ask someone near me to repeat the question for me.

Wearing hearing aids has its problems also.

I have had to leave parties and dinners because of the loud music, which makes it impossible for me to communicate with anyone, and the loud noise only accelerates my hearing loss. What to you is simple communication is a tiring effort for us with hearing problems and that is why many of us forego communication all together or can only tolerate some social situations for a brief period of time.

I just had surgery and as all surgery goes it was not a fun thing to go through, but for the hearing impaired just like most of life’s situations it was more difficult for me. I had to keep my hearing aids in right up to the time they started the anesthesia. I then took them out and handed them in a case to the anesthesiologist and when I came to 10 hours later, I was naturally very confused, but I could not hear what was being said or asked of me, because I did not have my hearing aids in and they could not find them. I went through the entire first night without my aids and as many of you know the nurses were in my room every 10 minutes but our communication was extremely limited. That just made my situation more difficult than it would be for others without a hearing impairment.

I have had people accuse me of hearing only what I want to hear. I have had people shout at me when I didn’t hear them the first time I have been told to turn up your hearing aid. I have been spoken to as if I was a child. There have been so many situations where I have felt that the other person was being cruel or making fun of my hearing impairment.

Trust me when I say that nothing makes a person with a hearing impairments blood boil more that when he/she is accused of hearing only what they want to.

Equally irritating is “turn up your hearing aid.” Remember most of us have problems with both sensitivity and discrimination and turning up the volume (if you can) cannot make distorted sounds any clearer and may actually make the situation worse.

Hearing aids are very expensive. The new digital ones, which are supposed to be terrific and the closest thing to real hearing, cost around $3,000 each. And that brings me to my final message and that is insurance coverage. Most of our insurance policies won’t pay or even help with hearing aids. Eye glasses are covered for those that have defective vision, but when it comes to the hearing impaired, which affects the individual both psychologically and socially, and which can destroy relationships and affect the performance and safety of people on the job, hearing aids are not included in coverage.

I hope I have shed some light on the life of the hearing impaired. I feel very fortunate in the fact that I have an employer who understands, a wife that is very patient and most of all I am grateful for hearing aids which help me so that I can communicate and function to an acceptable degree.

I again thank you for inviting me, and I urge you all to do your part in protecting your hearing and those of others.


MR. FOWLER: Thank you Bill for joining us at this conference and for putting the human dimension into what often times because kind of an academic exercise, which is looking at a problem and figuring out a way to solve it, and sometimes we kind of forget about the human aspect of it I have known Bill for a little over 5 years, and I have learned in that time that he is a very unique individual. The fact that he is in charge of one of the Union's biggest projects, the Apprenticeship Program, tells you the talent that he brings to the job. So he is unique but, unfortunately, in this particular area, his story is not a unique story You could hear the frustration, and you could hear the anger that he brought to this subject. I mean, it is real. Imagine the courage it takes for anybody in that situation to come up and talk about it and let people into that part of their lives, a very sensitive part.

So, Bill, we really appreciate you being here, and you have started this conference off really great, so thank you.

We are going to change the schedule a little bit right now and take the 15-minute break now and then come back at about ten after 10:00. So make that adjustment, please, and be back about ten after 10:00. Thanks.