The occupational noise level in many female-dominated sectors can lead to hearing damage. At the University of Gothenburg, researchers are now looking at ways to minimise the risk of hearing impairment, which could make more employees feel better and stay longer in their jobs.

Many of you might remember the humorous feature on the noisy preschool environment on Swedish television’s SVT Sydnytt, which has been viewed millions of times since it was broadcast in late autumn 2003. In the clip, the news anchor in the studio tells us that the Swedish region of Skåne will improve the environment at pre-schools, as the noise exposure is sometimes so high that children risk hearing damage. A clip from a pre-school then shows a child screaming into another child’s ear while someone pounds a piano in the background. The news anchor can’t keep from laughing.

Kerstin Persson Waye. Photo: University of Gothenburg.

However, it is not only the children who suffer from the high noise level. Among pre-school teachers, hearing-related problems are common and many also report a work injury as a result of noise exposure. At the University of Gothenburg, researchers began investigating the pre-school environment ten years ago. 10,000 women, half of whom had degrees in pre-school education, responded to a survey, which showed that pre-school teachers were highly affected by hearing-related problems. Now the survey will be followed up with the same response group as before.

“By following up the participants, we hope to highlight the importance of occupational noise levels, as well as noise in combination with stress and impaired work function”, says Kerstin Persson Waye, Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Gothenburg.

Common hearing-related symptoms include difficulty in perceiving speech when several people talk at the same time and feeling pain or discomfort at everyday sounds, also called acoustic sensitivity. In the long term, hearing impairment often leads to reduced ability to work and sometimes difficulty in working in the profession. Furthermore, a noisy working environment increases stress, which in turn can lead to sleep problems. Many people also experience sound fatigue when the workday is over.

Hearing impairments are often permanent, therefore it is very important to find the protective factors that reduce the risk of suffering.

“It is common that people can’t handle any more noise once they have been exposed to high noise levels all day. Therefore, they may avoid going to the gym, dance classes or other recreational activities. It is easy to get into a downward spiral of health”, says Kerstin Persson Waye.

The focus of the study is female-dominated workplaces. In these workplaces the noise level is often more complicated to remedy than in typical male-dominated industrial environments, where noise from machines can largely be avoided by hearing protection, building enclosures for machines or switching to quieter tools.

“Many people find it difficult to use hearing protection in communication-intensive professions. Good hearing is also more critical when working with people, where speech and communication is central”, she states.

What do you hope the study will lead to?

“We want to find out how hearing impairments occur. By identifying the risk and protective factors we hope to be able to implement interventions. That is, identifying possibilities to influence the working environment so that noise exposure is not as high, as long-term or as frequent”, says Kerstin Persson Waye, and continues:

“Hearing impairments are often permanent, therefore it is very important to find the protective factors that reduce the risk of suffering. Now that the retirement age has risen it is even more important to have a good hearing and not to have problems beginning in middle age. But interventions are always difficult”.

Why are interventions difficult?

“In order for interventions to be long-term, they must work for the organisation. Most people know what they should do, but different obstacles – such as “this is how we have always done it”, time pressures, stress, understaffing, inadequate leadership or financial goals – can get in the way of good intentions. Therefore, we will have group discussions in workplaces within the sectors of health care, schools and care services with the aim of developing interventions that could work long term”.

Kerstin Persson Waye hopes that employers will use the results to improve the working environment in their own organisations.

“It was not difficult to get employers and staff interested in participating. In all organisations it is important to hang onto staff – especially in health care, care services and pre-schools where they have difficulty recruiting. And everyone of course also wants their employees to be happy and healthy”.

Text: Linnea Bolter