Firefighter in front of a firetruck.

No one ever tried to say it’s not a tough job. But firefighters must face more than just blazes and collapsing buildings as they work every day to save lives.

As they reach retirement from their selfless service, many firefighters are faced with the new challenge of hearing loss.

Occupational Hearing Loss

Occupational hearing loss is hearing loss that can be linked directly to your profession. Government agencies like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) put rules in place for employers that limit an employee’s exposure to damaging sounds among other safety hazards. Unfortunately, these precautions aren’t always enough.

Hearing loss is a complex safety concern for firefighters. As these men and women face a greater risk of life-threatening injury or even death, it’s easy to forget about hearing loss. It also tends to happen slowly over many years. By the time a person realizes that it’s severe it’s already too late.

Why It Takes So Long to Recognize Damage

While most of the human body is very resilient, your ears can be easily damaged from prolonged or very loud noises.

You have tiny hair-like nerve cells in your inner ear that pick up different frequencies of sound. They vibrate with those sounds. This vibration communicates with the brain regarding what you’re hearing.

When exposed to very loud sound these nerves vibrate very quickly. The sound basically shakes them to death. Your body does not have a way to repair or regrow these cells. The more cells you damage, the harder it becomes to hear.

How Fire Fighting Can Lead to Hearing Loss

Over 455 firefighters have filed a lawsuit against Seagrave Fire Apparatus LLC claiming that the truck’s siren cause irreversible hearing damage. Seagrave is only one of several siren manufacturers whose sirens have been said to cause severe hearing loss.

Add to this the noise of air horns and loud engines and you have a boisterous work environment.

Even though the noise is intermittent, the volume can exceed 120 decibels. This volume can cause damage instantly, although you may not detect it until later.

That’s not to mention spending 15 minutes or more in the station or on the truck with sirens blaring.

A staggering 40% of career firefighters have some hearing loss. By the time they reach retirement, for most, the damage is severe.

Protecting Hearing as a Firefighter

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has created specific guidelines to try to curb hearing loss among these brave men and women. Unfortunately, studies have shown that only around 34% of firefighters are following these or other hearing protection precautions.

But hearing loss can be prevented when care is taken to protect the hearing.

The CDC recommends no more than 8 hours of exposure to 85 decibels or louder. That’s approximately the volume of a lawnmower or motorcycle. At this level, some damage is still occurring. But it’s considered to be within tolerable levels. This is in line with OSHA’s recommendations.

The CDC also recommends that those in charge use innovations to limit the volume that firefighters are exposed to. They stop just short of stating how loud sirens should actually be to get the job done while reducing the impact on hearing.

Public officials and manufacturers have been slow to respond to this health concern. But recent lawsuits may change that.

The CDC further recommends that firefighters are educated about job risks to their hearing as well as what they can do to protect their hearing. When it would not hinder job performance, properly wearing earplugs and earmuffs can reduce the damage.

Do You Have Occupational Hearing Loss?

If you’re a firefighter or work in another noisy occupation, don’t you want to know if you can do more to protect your hearing? Speak to an audiologist to get your hearing tested. Find out where you stand and what you can do to slow the progression.

If you already have severe hearing loss, you still have options. Hearing aids today are more technologically advanced, so you get the best hearing experience. An audiologist will help you explore ways to improve your hearing.