Hearing loss is a common problem seafarers face, especially those working in the engine room, UK P&I Club notes. As a result, the Club has published a guide with measures to monitor and limit hearing loss amongst crew.
Hearing defects have consistently featured as a cause of PEME (Pre Employment Medical Examination) failures, and currently account for 11% of the Club’s PEME unfitness statistics. The Club has noted the largest group of seafarers who are affected by abnormal audiometry results work in engine rooms.
Typically, crew with poor audiometry results also display signs of mild to moderate high frequency hearing loss. High levels of ambient noise, typically above 85 dBA cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL.) The negative effects of such level of noise and higher, depend upon individual physiology and the duration of exposure.
Limiting hearing loss
A robust hearing conservation program is identified as crucial by the Club. The program should include audiometric testing as well as:
- A baseline audiometry test to be performed within six months of exposure for all seafarers. The test should ideally be performed when the seafarer has not been exposed to hazardous noise for at least 14 hours.
- Seafarers exposed to higher noise levels may be required to attend training on the effects of loud noises on hearing, the purpose of audiometric testing and protective devices available to mitigate the effects of noise damage.
- As exposure to loud noises, such as in engine rooms, is unavoidable on ship, hearing protection within these areas is mandatory. Devices for hearing protection including earplugs or earmuffs can be easily sourced and used onboard. The most effective ear protection is the ear protector.
- Allow breaks for seafarers between each episode of exposure to loud noise (more than 85dB) especially when sound levels are higher and prolonged.
Isolating noise, not communication
Dr. M.K.E. Memon (MBBS, MCPS, MRSH), Consulting Physician at Kaifak Medicare, one of the Club’s approved PEME clinics in Mumbai, India, advises that:
- Ear muffs should not be ill-fitted.
- However, in extreme hot and humid climates, there are chances of skin irritation or skin infection around the external ears.
- It may be difficult to hear conversations, alarms, and abnormal sounds with or without ear muffs. To address this issue, ear muffs can be incorporated with telecoms receivers within, so that it can enhance emergency sound reception
- The noise-induced hearing loss can very well be evaluated by pure tone Audiometry during PEME. It is essential to emphasize audio-metric testing to detect hearing loss early and take preventive measures.
- Communication difficulties between crew members should also be taken into consideration as an important evidence of hearing impairment.
- Lip-reading/ face-to-face speech is better than for telecommunication as there are non-hearing clues about content.
- Technically improved gadgets such as wider-band with noise cancelling/exclusive headsets or earpieces can improve reception of auditory information.
- Most sensory stimuli do not reach conscious perception during sleep except the sense of hearing. Vibrating alarms or bright flashing lights can be used as an audible warning to wake a seafarer having mild to moderate hearing defects from sleep, during emergencies, while on board.
To summarize, hearing loss is a serious threat to a seafarer’s safety and well-being, as well as the safety and well-being of their crewmates. Measures should be carried out to reduce this risk and promote actions that assist crew in preventing and monitoring their hearing loss, as well as overcoming the safety limitations it presents.
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