Prevention key in workplace injuries

Nov. 17, 2013 @ 08:37 AM

Ester Farthing, 67, began working in cotton and hosiery mills in her 20s. Day in and day out, loud machines touted high-frequency noise as she worked for years, mostly without hearing protection.

Over the nearly 40 years working with the noise, her hearing deteriorated until she was nearly deaf in her right ear, and could hardly hear her daughter’s words when they spoke.

Farthing’s story is all too common among factory and mill workers who spent years around loud machinery, said Bill Beck, hearing instrument specialist at Beltone.

And such stories are a reminder of how awareness of workplace injuries has evolved over the decades, and safety now means much more than hearing protection and safety goggles.

Farthing said she wore mandated hearing protection most of the time since the late ‘70s, opting for molded in-ear plugs, but problems with her allergies and sinus required her to take them out occasionally – which Farthing regrets.

"It took a while for them to start making people wear hearing protection," Farthing said. "I don't know whether it's because they were just slow or people had been there so long they couldn't hear anyway."

At Bernhardt Furniture Co., as at other industrial employers, officials now take a variety of precautions to minimize the chance of injuries, ranging from repetitive motion injuries to amputations, said Doug Brookshire, Berhardt's safety director. For instance, exercises to limber up the body and help fight repetitive injuries have moved from optional to mandatory, and safety committees made up of employees keep up with the status of safety on a personal level.

"It's gotten better, of course," Brookshire said. "What we try to do is make our safety work right alongside our production."

And the safety devices on machinery have advanced to the point that they can turn off whatever energy source the employee may be working with, whether it’s hydraulic, electric, pneumatic, thermal or even gravity, Brookshire said.

"Our goal is zero injuries, that's what we're always going to strive for," he said.

Because workplace-related injuries are a big concern in a manufacturing economy like Caldwell County, Caldwell Memorial Hospital recently established Healthworks, a program that staff work-site clinics for employees to go with any work-related injury.

Most of what Healthworks does is treat acute injuries to get injured employees back to work, said Dr. Michael Fisher, a physician involved in the program. The most common: back injuries.

But with most injuries stemming from work, “The biggest thing is prevention,” Fisher said, adding that employers have training and instruction on how to perform certain tasks to minimize the chance of injury.

The precautions may mean that fewer chronic injuries surface in longtime factory workers in the future like the hearing problems that Beck sees now. Two main things contribute to hearing loss in cases like these, he said: Damage to the hair-like nerve endings on the ear’s nerve center in the cochlea, in the inner ear, and auditory deprivation, or not hearing something for so long that the brain forgets the sound.

"It's like me sitting in a chair. If I tried to get up after five years, if I tried to get up, I couldn't move–that's muscular deprivation," Beck said.

Exposure to high-frequency and high-volume sounds can shear off the nerve endings of the cochlear nerves, which never grow back. The more that are lost, the less sensitive to sound the cochlea becomes.

Beck has seen the same type of damage from hunters and military personnel, after years of firing guns with no hearing protection.

“I probably see 20 people a month,” said Beck. “There seems to be more in this area because this is the hub for furniture manufacturing. I see a lot of men and women — same thing, hearing loss because of work.”

Sometimes the damage is too extensive for a hearing aid to correct, but with today's technology, hearing aids are doing more than ever, Beck said.

Beck has had patients with hearing loss from decades in mills put hearing aids in their ears, and they’re “hearing sounds they haven’t heard in 20 or 25 years,” Beck said. “Their grandchildren, a doorbell, birds, wind in the trees.”

People break down in his office, able to hear the voices of their families again, hearing things their brains had forgotten, all lost from years of assault on the intricate workings of the human ear.

Farthing found her way to a hearing test and a hearing aid -- just one, in her left ear.

“It’s different as daylight and dark,” Farthing said. Birds, animals and even her daughter’s voice all come in clear now. “People don’t have to yell at me or scream at me,” she said.