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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Can You Hear Me Now?

Hearing Conservation Program: Essential to Firefighter Wellness

Firefighters are subject to many types of hazards and dangerous environments throughout their careers. However, an alarming number of firefighters suffer from one particular condition that is largely preventable: noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

Every fire chief needs to be aware that this insidious occupational disease is present in every fire station in the country. But there are ways you can protect your firefighters from NIHL and protect the fire department from rising health costs associated with this condition.

Many organizations, including the American College of Occupational Health and Environmental Medicine, have long recognized that the incidence of NIHL in firefighters is well above the normal levels associated with simple aging. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in particular has concluded that NIHL is a health hazard for firefighters as an occupational group.

Developing a specific hearing-conservation program can do much to raise the awareness of this issue with your firefighters and can go a long way as you set out mitigation and cost-avoidance strategies.

Engage the Necessary Team Members

As with any health and safety initiative, it’s imperative to engage labor groups during the developmental phase of a program of this nature. Engaging an occupational physician is also an important aspect of your program.

In some jurisdictions, health-and-safety legislation mandates may tell you how such hazards are to be addressed by employers and may include such appropriate strategies as hazard elimination, engineering controls or the implementation of administrative controls. In addition, many jurisdictions have legislated exposure limits for workers, so be sure to check the ones that apply to you.

Assess the Problem in Your Department

A job-hazard or risk analysis is an appropriate starting point. Some communities may already possess the necessary equipment to conduct noise-level checks; in others, it may be advisable to secure the services of an independent third party to conduct these assessments.

Apparatus and equipment are the logical sources of noise exposure, so be sure to include checks of all apparatus—while stationary, driving, pumping, sirens activated, etc.—and such equipment as power saws, hydraulic extrication power plants, generators, PPV fans and portable pumps.

Be sure to include station assets as well: SCBA compressor/fill stations, lawnmowers, weed-trimmers, snow blowers and so on. The latest editions of NFPA 1911 have addressed noise levels in the cabs of apparatus, but there are many older cabs still in service that don’t meet today’s standards in terms of noise attenuation.

Fix the Problem

Once you’ve established the sources of noise, you can compare these with the exposure limits for your jurisdiction and take the appropriate action. These actions may include

  • retiring old equipment in favor of newer, quieter equipment
  • mandating the use of hearing protection, such as muffs or ear plugs, as appropriate
  • installing warning signs
  • providing training specific to NIHL for your response crews

These actions—backed up by well written SOPs and SOGs—will get you halfway there.

An integral part of any complete program involves the implementation of baseline and ongoing audiometric testing for all staff. Collaboration with your labor group will go a long way in implementing this part of your program smoothly.

An occupational physician can oversee the initial and annual or biannual surveillance testing of all staff will ensure that any NIHL is detected and treated at the earliest possible juncture.

Finally, studies suggest that NIHL is related to other medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other neurodegenerative diseases. Establish a hearing-conservation program to maximize the performance of your firefighters and diminish the impact of NIHL on your staff and their families. At the same time, this will minimize disability claims for your city.

These are job responsibilities shared by every fire chief in North America.

Larry Brassard is the deputy chief of operations for Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario, Canada. He’s a member of the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section.

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