A study of co-exposure to chemicals and noise on hearing in the rubber industry
Niranjan, Ivan Gunass
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Hearing conservation in the industrial setting has mainly focussed on the harmful effects of noise exposure on the auditory system. This study investigated the co-exposure to noise and ototoxic chemicals on the auditory system of workers engaged by labour brokers. It examined the adequacy of current occupational health and safety legislation to address chemically induced hearing loss and makes recommendations at a policy level to protect workers’ hearing at the workplace. This study is an exploratory cross-sectional field case study in an industrial setting. A sample of 300 workers was drawn from a rubber factory involved in the manufacture of components for the motor, shoe and plumbing industries in the metropolitan area of Durban. Purposive sampling was undertaken amongst a cohort of day shift workers which constituted the research subjects. The research tools used in the study included the completion of the NoiseChem questionnaire, conducting pure tone audiometric testing on research subjects, monitoring noise exposure levels and performing chemical air monitoring of the ambient environment. This study confirms that a segment of the research subjects were exposed to both ototoxic chemicals and noise. Chemical exposure of research subjects was within legal permissible limits in most instances. Noise exposure exceeded the noise rating limit of 85 dBA in certain work areas. Multiple regression analysis revealed that there was a slight trend towards co-exposure to chemicals and noise being risk factors for hearing loss with an odds ratio of 1.7 (95% CI = 0.34 – 8.57) but the p value was not significant. No significant association with hearing loss was evident for workers exposed to chemical only with odds ratio of 0.41 (95% CI = 0.11 – 1.53, p = 0.19) and noise only with odds ratio of 0.87 (95% CI = 0.32 – 2.31, p = 0.78). The study indicated that workers exposed to both ototoxic chemicals and noise may be more susceptible to hearing loss in their current jobs. The study draws attention to policy gaps in the Occupational Health and Safety Act and proposes changes to address the shortcomings.