Hearing Loss and What You Need to Know

Health Watch

By ALPA Staff

Being able to differentiate sounds and effectively communicate with other airline employees and air traffic controllers are essential components of safe flight deck operations. In both Canada and the United States, regulatory agencies set baseline standards for pilot hearing as requirements for medical certification. Transport Canada expects aviators to be able “to hear and understand at a distance greater than two metres.” The FAA requires pilots to be able “to hear the spoken voice with both ears at six feet” with their backs turned to the speaker.

Hearing, or the perception of sounds, occurs when soundwaves travel through the ear canal, causing the eardrum to vibrate. Small bones in the middle ear transport this vibration into the cochlea of the inner ear. The cochlea subsequently produces fluids that stimulate small hair cells, which generate nerve impulses along the auditory nerve. These impulses travel to the brainstem and the auditory cortex where they’re distinguished as words, music, and other distinct messaging to help us better understand our world and what’s happening in it.

Sound volumes are measured in decibels (dB), and routine or continuous exposure to noise levels above 85 dB increases the risk of hearing loss. Exposure to loud sounds can damage the hair cells in the ear, ultimately causing them to deteriorate. Often referred to as noise-induced hearing loss, the resulting damage can sometimes include sensorineural hearing loss—a decrease in the ability to recognize and differentiate higher-frequency sound ranges.

Other factors that contribute to loss of hearing include aging, the buildup of earwax, and nasal congestion. Medical conditions like otosclerosis, the stiffening of the eardrum; acoustic neuroma, an auditory-impairing tumor; tinnitus, a constant ringing or noise in one or both ears; and other disorders can also impact the ability to effectively distinguish sounds.

The good news is that both the FAA and Transport Canada recognize the auditory hazards of working with aircraft and offer certain accommodations. Pilots in both countries who suffer from significant hearing loss are often allowed to perform their duties with certain constraints. For example, the FAA will add a limitation to the pilot’s medical certificate that states “must use hearing amplification.” This may include hearing aids or, more commonly, a headset or overhead speaker on the flight deck.

As an airline pilot, it’s important to be cognizant of the noise in your environment—whether at work or elsewhere—and to take steps to protect yourself. Airlines often issue foam ear plugs to employees who work around aircraft, and these simple devices can also be purchased in stores and online. Custom-molded earplugs are also available. In addition, investing in a high-quality pair of noise-reducing headsets can help.

Be sure to wear hearing protection when conducting preflight walkarounds or during protracted periods on the ramp. Off the job, make an effort to keep the volume at a comfortable level when watching television or using stereos and mobile devices, and wear ear protection when mowing the lawn and operating other kinds of loud machinery.

If you have concerns about hearing loss, talk to your physician about what you’re experiencing. Depending upon your situation, hearing aids, ear cleaning, and even sound therapy may provide some relief. Under certain circumstances, your doctor may recommend cochlear implants. However, keep in mind that not all kinds of hearing loss are reversible.

A study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked the airline industry second only to metal manufacturing as having the highest hearing-loss rate for its employees. So take the necessary measures to protect yourself, and if you do experience hearing loss, consult your physician.

Questions about Hearing Loss?

U.S. ALPA members with questions about hearing loss are encouraged to contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician about approved treatments and medical certification. Canadian members with questions can call Canadian Pilot Peer Support at 309-777-2572.

This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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