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Hearing-impaired workers: what are your obligations?

Hearing difficulties at work can be an issue for both employees and employers.
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Hearing-impaired workers: what are your obligations?

Hearing-impaired workers: what are your obligations?

19 August 2019

Failure to hear a warning or instruction has no doubt been the cause of numerous workplace mishaps and muddles. Whether someone didn’t hear an approaching forklift and stepped out at the wrong time, or mis-heard information provided and didn’t follow the right procedure, hearing difficulties at work can be an issue for both employees and the employer.

Effective communication while working is obviously vital, and anyone with impaired hearing can be at a disadvantage in all sorts of ways. For the hearing-impaired, the soft sounds of ordinary speech (such as the consonants t, k, f, v, s, b and p) can disappear, so speech is mostly booming vowel sounds (for the last few words: ‘oo-i ow –ow’). Phone conversations can be reduced to a series of muted murmurings impossible to decipher, and the import of briefings can be swamped by background noise and the whooshings, rustling and whistling of tinnitus (internal head noises often associated with hearing loss).

Depending on the degree of impairment, hearing loss can vary from a minor disadvantage to an outright disability.

Employers’ obligations

Employers have the same obligations in relation to the hearing-impaired as they do towards people with other disabilities. It is unlawful to discriminate against people in a work situation on the grounds of a physical disability such as hearing loss.

Employers also have the same duty of care in relation to work health and safety. Any risks arising from a person’s hearing impairment must be managed, with accommodations made where reasonably practicable.

Risk management and hearing aids

The naive, knee-jerk response to this situation might be to insist that ‘they should wear their hearing aids’. This expectation is easy to understand, because people who have never been in the position of needing hearing aids tend to believe that hearing aids automatically solve the problem and make it easier to hear.

The unfortunate reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. For every happy hearing aid wearer, there seem to be many other frustrated hearing-impaired people who’ve tried hearing aids but found them impossible to deal with. Reasons for this can be because every little background rustle, swish and creak – ambient noise – is unbearably amplified by the hearing aid, disconcerting and tormenting the wearer; or because the parts of the hearing aids themselves that sit inside the entrance to the ear canal can set up an unbearable itching sensation; or because the complexity of the systems for the initial settings, adjustments, fine-tuning, care and maintenance of the device can defeat the unready.

Because of these limitations to effectiveness and wearer-acceptability, risk management measures should not include a blanket requirement for people with hearing aids to wear them while at work. While this may be fine for some staff, it could amount to unreasonable discrimination against others who have been fitted with hearing aids but find them impossible to wear for sustained periods. The end result for the employer could include the loss of highly trained, valuable personnel, along with their skills and contribution to the organisation.

Alternative workplace accommodations for the hearing-impaired

Reasonable work accommodations to manage the risks and difficulties arising from hearing impairment depend on the nature of the work and the workplace. In an office environment for example, if a noisy work area is interfering with phone conversations for a hearing-impaired person, it may be possible to situate that person in a quieter area.

In some workplace settings, there are a great many technological options that can help facilitate effective communication, such as strobe lights on fire alarms, vibrating pagers, low and multiple frequency alarms, and CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) writers, which transcribe every word that is spoken and can display it on a laptop, project onto a screen or provide it as a transcript afterwards.

Simpler solutions in other types of work environments include having hearing-impaired workers position themselves closer to the speaker in a meeting, or explaining to other staff that effective communication will be enabled if they speak with their face turned toward to the person who has difficulty hearing, rather than with their face turned away. It may also be necessary to attract the person’s attention first. This could also help alleviate the irritation of other staff who find they have to repeat everything in order for their message to be received.

Whatever strategies are adopted for dealing with the issue, they should be based on individual, case-by-case assessments of the degree of difficulty hearing in actual work situations and the feasibility of various ways of dealing with it, and not on ‘one-size-fits-all’ rulings requiring the wearing of hearing aids.

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