Emergency response personnel like firefighters and police officers put their lives at risk each day to protect the public from danger. Whether rushing into burning buildings or chasing dangerous criminals, risks to their health and safety are common parts of their jobs. However, another, often-overlooked danger is the risk of hearing loss. While 30 million Americans are exposed to hearing dangers each day, people in these professions face a greater risk of long-term hearing loss.
Why are they so susceptible to hearing damage, and what can they do to protect their hearing?
Prolonged exposure to any sounds above 85 decibels can be dangerous to your ears. Yet, firefighters are regularly exposed to noises above this threshold: sirens, air horns and radios from firetrucks, power tools like power saws to cut metal, and fans to remove smoke are just some of the loud noise sources firefighters encounter every day. Since hearing ability is crucial in situations where smoke can limit visibility, diminished hearing can also increase the risk of other injuries.
Many fire departments have made some changes to help address the problem of hearing loss, such as changing the placement of the sirens in firetrucks. Although firefighters are provided with hearing protection, a lack of consistent usage or wearing them incorrectly means they aren’t always effective.
Hearing is essential to the job of law enforcement official, enabling them to detect where sounds are coming from and responding accordingly. Yet, the job itself can diminish their hearing. Police officers encounter many of the same noises as firefighters – sirens, traffic, radio systems – along with the added risk of hearing damage from gunfire.
And it’s not just in the line of duty where gunshots can affect their hearing. Time spent training on the gun range can be particularly damaging if the proper hearing care precautions aren’t taken. In such trainings, they’re typically given a pair of possibly well-worn ear muffs or one-size-fits-all earplugs that don’t offer the right level of protection. Not using proper ear protection during trainings may be one of the reasons why police officers face a higher probability of developing noise-induced hearing loss. According to one study, 34.2 percent of police officers were found to have hearing loss, compared to about 15 percent of American adults in general.
Focusing on hearing health
Given the high probability that firefighters will be exposed to dangerous noise levels, it is important for fire and police departments and individuals alike to be proactive about hearing safety. This means educating staff on the dangers of hearing loss and what they can do throughout their workday to protect their hearing in even the most critical situations.
It may be unrealistic for firefighters and police officers to wear hearing protection all the time, especially in the high-pressure, emergency situations they face. However, since hearing loss is cumulative and develops over time, minimizing those moments of exposure to unsafe noise levels can help significantly. With the proper guidance, and custom-fit hearing protection, firefighters and police officers can protect their hearing as they continue to make the world a safer place.