Those were the words of Dr. Alice Suter, paying respect to almost 300 attendees, as she kicked off the 36th Annual National Hearing Conservation Conference in Mesa, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix, Feb. 24-26.

Those qualities come into play as NHCA members grapple with hearing loss among workers, called the silent epidemic of the workplace. Their challenges: workers who can’t see, and thus at times can’t respect, the risks that noise on the job pose. Supervisors and plant managers who sometimes will say, “Noise, we’ve got it under control. All of our people wear hearing protection device (HPDs).

But do they? According to one study, only 54 percent of workers in high noise areas wear hearing protection.

And perhaps the greatest challenge: we all take our hearing for granted, until we begin to lose it and slowly become isolated from other people and the world we live i.

This despite the estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that approximately 20,000 workers annually suffer hearing loss on the job. And OSHA believes there is significant under-reporting of hearing loss.

The audience at the NHCA meeting was made up of representatives from the military, OSHA, NIOSH (though only one OSHA official, a speaker, attended due to travel budget restrictions), consultants, academics, researchers, labor and industry reps, healthcare and government agencies such as NASA.

More than 20 universities were represented, as were the countries Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Norway.

Spend just a little time with these passionate protectors of hearing and you realize:
  1. The overlooked importance of our day to day ability to hear the world around us; and
  2. hearing loss is low on the totem pole of public health issues.
There seems to be a sort of fatalism that as you age, you’ll probably experience hearing loss. So those tackling hear loss and workplace noise control as a career are indeed bold, smart, committed and passionate.