About 30 million Americans experience some level of hearing loss, but only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one. There are many reasons why people with hearing loss don’t seek assistance. For some, it’s the stigma of using a hearing aid. Others may not realize they have hearing loss because they haven’t had a recent hearing exam. For many other people, cost is a big deterrent – current costs for a hearing aid can range from $1,400 to $4,700 or more.
Starting in October, at least one of those reasons should start to change. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a final rule that will allow hearing aids to be sold over-the-counter without a prescription. The goal is to reduce cost for consumers, make it easier for people to obtain a hearing aid and encourage more manufacturers to enter the market with more affordable, innovative products.
“LIUNA members and other construction workers are at heightened risk for hearing loss if hazardous noise from equipment and other construction operations isn’t controlled to safe levels,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Signatory contractors and all employers must protect workers’ hearing through the use of engineering controls, administrative controls and hearing protection to protect workers’ long-term health.”
Reducing Costs and Increasing Access
Currently, the high cost of hearing aids often includes visiting a doctor for a hearing exam and a fitting to obtain a prescription for a hearing aid. Without that prescription, many health insurance providers won’t cover the cost of the device itself. Requiring a doctor visit increases costs for consumers and creates another barrier that makes it less likely people will seek assistance, especially for hourly workers that don’t have the benefit of paid leave.
Under the new FDA rule, people with mild to moderate hearing loss will be able to buy hearing aids without being required to see a doctor to get a prescription. FDA officials estimate that change will reduce the cost of a hearing aid by as much as $2,800. New over-the-counter models could start being available online or in stores as early as mid-October.
“Hearing loss has a profound impact on daily communication, social interaction and the overall health and quality of life for millions of Americans,” said FDA commissioner Dr. Califf. “This is a tremendous worldwide problem where I think American ingenuity can make a huge difference.”
Hearing Loss Linked to Dementia and Other Health Effects
Hearing loss has also been linked directly to increased risk for dementia, increased risk for heart disease and other negative outcomes such as increased social isolation and poorer overall well-being.
“I think our biggest challenge as a profession and as a health care system is to make sure that people understand that hearing is incredibly important,” said Sarah Sydlowski, associate chief improvement officer of the Cleveland Clinic’s Head and Neck Institute. “It deserves their attention, it deserves their action.”
Reducing Hazardous Noise on the Job
Making hearing aids more available and more affordable has the potential to improve quality of life for many construction workers. Unfortunately, hearing loss is prevalent in the industry, with about 25 percent of tested workers reporting hearing impairment that affects their day-to-day lives. Hazardous noise exposure is cumulative and does permanent damage to workers’ hearing, which is why it’s so crucial to prevent hazardous noise exposure in the first place.
NIOSH estimates that 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise at work and that about one quarter of hearing difficulty is caused by occupational exposure. While OSHA’s noise standard sets a permissible exposure limit of 90 decibels in construction, NIOSH and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommend a more stringent limit of 85 decibels.
The Fund’s OSH Division encourages contractors to follow the hierarchy of controls to prevent hazardous noise exposure. That means first implementing engineering controls such as buying quieter equipment, retrofitting old equipment with noise-reducing mufflers or other devices or installing sound barriers where possible. Contractors should then move to administrative controls, such as restricting access to noisy areas. If noise still remains at unsafe levels, employers should then ensure workers are wearing personal protective equipment such as earplugs. Hearing protection must be provided at no cost to the employee when there are hazardous noise levels on the job.
For more information, LIUNA signatory contractors can visit the Fund’s Noise topic page or order the Fund’s Laborers’ Guide to Noise and Hearing Loss, our Noise Toolbox Talk or other Noise publications here.