Sunday, November 24, 2019

New Book on Hearing, by David Owen, is an Enriching Read for the Workers' Compensation Professional

            The late 1980s and much of the 1990s were the period of the "Hearing Loss Wars" in Pennsylvania workers’ compensation. Most lawyers and judges came to learn the basic aspects of the law and medicine of hearing loss. We knew by heart that 90 decibels was the OSHA limit for an eight-hour workday, that a worker who experienced a “temporary threshold shift” had no doubt sustained some level of permanent sensorineural loss, and we routinely heard of the 6000 to 8000 hertz “notch” of the typical audiogram. 

            So intense and litigated were hearing loss cases that my treatise on workers’ compensation features nearly 30 single-spaced pages devoted to the law and practice of such claims.

            Those wars are over now, likely because of the decline of manufacturing in our state. If they return, however, both the novice and the hoary veteran will want to read journalist David Owen’s new book, Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World (Riverhead Books 2019).

            The author, in a chatty, personal-journey type account, reports here on his investigation into hearing loss, remedies for the same, and seemingly all of its cultural manifestations. Owen, specifically, explores the mechanics and physiology of hearing loss, causation, audiograms, how such losses have been interpreted over the centuries, the experience of the deaf, the business and progress of hearing aids and cochlear implants, and regulation of noise in industry, the military, and in our personal lives.

            Owen frequently turns philosophical about hearing loss. For example, would it be better to be blind or deaf? Owen suggests that most people who have thought about the issue at length believe that deafness is much worse, as it interferes with communication and estranges the victim from society. On another issue, why is it that most of us know that exposure to loud noise can be harmless, but we ignore the hazards nonetheless? One reason is inconvenience or sloppiness, to which we probably can all attest, but it turns out that, as well, the brain actually likes certain things, like music, loud. Rock concerts (and the finales of Brahms symphonies, I would add), are not overwhelmingly loud for nothing.

            The irony, however, is that even soft noises, like the drip of a leaking faucet, can be irritating. Hearing, the author’s interviewees point out, is closely related to our emotions. The author, in this regard, might well have identified loud, unmuffled motorcycle exhaust; giant exhaust pipes on pick-up trucks; and car stereos with exaggerated subwoofers supporting vulgar lyrics. None of these noise sources probably damage hearing, but they disrupt the peace of whole neighborhoods.

            Owen’s most interesting chapters address the recent improvements in hearing aids. For many years, a few companies controlled the market, and for an aid to be adjusted required a trip to the audiologist. Now, however, regulation is loosening, and many enterprises market other devices that aid in hearing, short of being hearing aids. Owens’ chapter, “Beyond Conventional Hearing Aids,” was the most enlightening for this reader.

               In the realm of occupational noise, Owen discusses one item that was often discussed at hearing loss medical depositions, to wit, the role of loud noise in the workplace that was not shown to be in excess of the OSHA thresholds. Experts suggested to Owen that such noise may well, indeed, cause hearing loss – the OSHA standard is hardly definitive in establishing which workers have sustained occupational hearing loss and which have not. As Owen states, correctly, the OSHA standards “say that if you work in a covered industry you can legally be exposed to eight continuous hours of 90-decibel noise (motorcycle eight meters away, lawn mower), or to two hours of 100-decibel noise (New York City subway car, jackhammer, kitchen blender, snowmobile), or to thirty minutes of 110-decibel noise (car horn one meter away, chain saw) – every day of your career .…” Owen concludes, “Probably the best that can be said about the rules is that they’re better than nothing.”  

            In his final chapter, Owen nods his head briefly to the issue of law and regulation. The residents of some urban areas have revolted, in this “deafening world,” and insisted on noise regulation. But, as Owen correctly states, enforcement is a major problem. Already-overworked law enforcement personnel may be reluctant to spend lots of time doing noise control, and some urban areas are unavoidably going to be noisy. He uses the all-night garbage collection trucks of Manhattan as a familiar and persuasive example.

            Owen’s book is not heavily footnoted, but his bibliography features what seem to be excellent references, usually supported by websites, for further reading. The book would have benefited by illustrations and diagrams, but overall this new book is an enriching one for the workers’ compensation professional.

            Especially for those who missed the Wars.       


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