Protecting Firefighters from Hearing Loss

Image: Firefighters wearing ear protection

Approximately 40% of firefighters in the study showed hearing loss at noise-sensitive frequencies

More than one million U.S. firefighters are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Frequent exposure to high-intensity truck sirens, power tools, and water pumps gradually damages their sensory hair cells located in the inner ear.1 Hearing protection devices (HPDs) have been shown to prevent injury, but few studies have pinpointed critical factors shaping their use.

A study led by OiSaeng Hong from UCSF has revealed that interpersonal influences – the behaviors modeled by supervisors and peers - are by far the strongest predictor of whether firefighters will wear hearing protection on the job.2

The study enrolled over 400 firefighters from 35 fire departments in California, Illinois, and Indiana to identify significant factors related to the firefighters’ use of HPDs. Noise exposure at work, interpersonal influences, and organizational support were the most strongly related, study authors found.

“Peer influence is remarkably important,” says Hong, director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing Program at UCSF. Cognitive-perceptual factors, including perceived susceptibility to hearing loss, were also significant predictors of HPD use.

Approximately 40% of firefighters in the study showed hearing loss at noise sensitive frequencies. Still, study participants reporting using HPDs only one-third of the time they are needed. In fact, one fire department located in the Midwest had provided no HPDs for its members. Hong noted that hearing loss was significantly higher in this department compared to others in the study.

“Our findings show that organizational- level intervention is critical to HPD use,” said Hong. “The chief or commander has a tremendous influence. Their support is essential to changing health promotion behaviors.”

1,2Hong O, Chin DL, Ronis DL. Predictors of Hearing Protection Behavior Among Firefighters in the United States. Int J Behav Med. Online First™, 7 December 2011.

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