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December 14, 2015

Firefighters claim job gave them hearing loss, file lawsuit

Fighting fires is dangerous enough, but some firefighters are claiming that the job comes with a hidden danger: hearing loss.

Nearly 1,500 New York firefighters have filed a lawsuit claiming that years of exposure to loud sirens on their fire trucks have left them with hearing loss, according to the New York Post.

“My hearing is really bad. I have a hearing aid . . . in each ear,” retired firefighter Tom Manley told the New York Post. “When I first got on the job, there were open cabs. Your back compartment was open. The sound just came right back to you. The decibel of the siren was so high that sometimes you couldn’t even hear the radio. We were banging in way over 120 [decibels].”

Approximately 30 million people are exposed to hazardous noise at work in the US, according to the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Noise-related hearing loss has been listed as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the United States for more than 25 years, with more than 21,000 reports in a single year.

In the case of firefighters, the OSHA recommends that fire departments establish and maintain department-specific hearing loss prevention programs, including:

  • Engineering and administrative controls to limit fire fighters’ overall exposure to noise from equipment or in Figure 1. NIOSH researcher examines noise levels generated by fire truck siren and engine. the work environment. Fire departments should incorporate noise emission limits in their purchasing agreements for new equipment [Neitzel et al. 2012; Duffy et al. 1992; Tubbs 1991]. The “Buy Quiet” process recommended by NIOSH encourages a purchaser to compare the noise emission levels of different models of equipment and, whenever possible, buy the quieter model [Hayden 2012].

  • Training about harmful noise levels from various tasks and equipment, the effects of noise exposure, and hearing loss [Duffy et al. 1992].

  • Training about appropriate hearing protection devices, especially electronic devices designed specifically for fire fighters and that provide enhanced communication capabilities and block harmful noise.

  • Individualized training on the proper use of hearing protection devices using commercially available fit-test systems [Murphy et al. 2011]. Fit-testing allows for easy and accurate measurement of hearing protection effectiveness just as they are being used in the field.

However, it is unknown how common these practices are in real life.

A study of 319 fire fighters in Massachusetts (average age 39.5 ± 6.9 years) showed 46 (14%) fire fighters with highfrequency hearing loss compared with 5% of the general population with similar age distribution [Kales et al. 2001]. A focus group study at 2 fire departments found that although fire fighters were aware of the damaging effects of loud noise, they did not use hearing protection regularly [Hong et al. 2008]. The two fire departments had no hearing conservation programs in place, and the fire fighters viewed NIHL as an unavoidable part of the job and a smaller risk compared with other hazards.

Each firefighter is seeking $75,000 in damages plus court costs.

Author Details
The HearingLikeMe editorial team includes Jill Blocker von Bueren and Lisa Goldstein.