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Ototoxicity – Hearing Loss in the Workplace

Posted on January 5, 2019 in Workers' Compensation

Most people equate hearing loss with a loud environment such as those centered on construction equipment or industrial machinery. Unfortunately, a chemically toxic work environment can also lead to a reduction in hearing capacity or complete hearing loss.

Recently, OSHA released a Safety and Health Information Bulletin warning employers of this relatively unknown cause of worker injury. Damage to hearing due to chemical exposure is referred to as ototoxicity. The chemicals themselves are referred to as ototoxicants. While exposure to noise and ototoxicants can independently cause hearing loss in employees, if a worker is exposed to both factors on the job, he or she can suffer devastating results. Depending on the level of noise, the dose of the chemical and the duration of the exposure the hearing loss can be either temporary or permanent.

Ototoxicants can be found in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, mining, utilities, construction and agriculture. Subsectors can include:

  • Fabricated metal
  • Machinery
  • Leather and allied product
  • Textile and apparel
  • Petroleum
  • Paper
  • Chemical (including paint)
  • Plastics
  • Furniture
  • Transportation equipment (including ship and boat building)
  • Electrical equipment, appliance and component
  • Solar cell

These chemicals can be found in numerous classes of substances, including:

  • Pharmaceuticals: including aminoglycosidic antibiotics, loop diuretics, certain analgesics and certain antineoplastic agents.
  • Solvents: including carbon disulfide, toluene, n-hexane, styrene and trichloroethylene.
  • Asphyxiants: including carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and it salts, and tobacco smoke.
  • Nitriles: including 3-Butenenitrile, cis-2-pentenenitrile, acrylonitrile and cis-crotononitrile.
  • Metals and compounds: including mercury compounds, germanium dioxide, organic tin compounds and lead.

Harmful exposure to ototoxicants may occur through inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption. While the effects may be temporary or permanent, the exposure can dramatically impact hearing sensitivity and result in a standard threshold shift. Additionally, a worker might suffer a loss in hearing clarity and the ability to distinguish voices from background noise.

What Can Be Done To Prevent Harm?

Industries need to be diligent in preventing exposure to ototoxicants. The first step is identifying these hazardous chemicals by reviewing the information found in Safety Data Sheets (SDS). If a material is identified, replace the material with a less toxic chemical. If the material cannot be replaced, employers must provide health and safety information as well as training and making safety equipment readily available. Additionally, administrative controls can be implemented to eliminate unnecessary tasks that can cause noise or ototoxicant exposure.

If you or a loved one suffered a diminished hearing capacity or total hearing loss due to a dangerous workplace or negligent employer practices, it is crucial that you speak with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney as soon as possible.