Kindergarten and preschool workers report more hearing problems than others

July 9, 2018 - 06:20

A new Swedish study shows that many preschool and kindergarten employees have hearing problems because of their work.

Preschools and kindergartens are noisy places. But buried in the noise may be important information that children are trying to convey to their teachers. That means preschool and kindergarten teachers can’t use hearing protection or ear plugs, which may explain why preschool teachers report more hearing problems than other workers. (Photo: Shutterstock / NTB Scanpix)

Whether happy or sad, angry or hungry, kids make noise. And when they are gathered in a single space, this can add up to some pretty significant noise.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that preschool and kindergarten teachers have significantly more hearing problems than other workers, according to a new Swedish study.

Roughly seven out of ten female preschool teachers say they suffer from what is called sound-induced auditory fatigue. Nearly half have trouble understanding speech, which means that they don’t fully comprehend what is said in conversations where there is a lot of background noise. And four out of ten have experienced hypersensitivity to sound.

These percentages are significantly greater than in women who work in other professions, and are also higher than in other occupational groups exposed to excessive noise, such as construction workers.

Quieter preschools and kindergartens

"This is a profession where workers have a much higher risk of hearing damage than others. It could be quite worrying if we do nothing,” says Sofie Fredriksson from the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden.

“We need to reduce the volume level. And we need to have quieter preschools and kindergartens,” she said in a press release.

Fredriksson has previously studied hearing damage and tinnitus in midwives. These workers are also exposed to a lot of noise, not necessarily from newborn children, but from the screaming and crying of women giving birth. She decided to study preschool teachers as an extension of this work.

Much more than other women

Of the 4718 women who responded to Fredriksson's survey, 71 per cent perceived that they had hearing problems, or sound-induced auditory fatigue. In effect this means that your ears are so “tired” after work that you can’t listen to the radio, for example.

The researchers also sent the survey to 4122 other women who did not work in preschools or kindergartens. This allowed the researchers to be able to examine the differences between people who worked in preschools and kindergartens and those who did not. Only 32 per cent of this control group had auditory fatigue.

Nearly half of the women in preschools and kindergartens had difficulty understanding speech, compared to 26 per cent in the control group. And 40 percent experienced discomfort or had physical pain in their ears at least once a week in reaction to noises that were not particularly strong. This group was classified as sound sensitive. Only 18 per cent of the women in the control group experienced this problem.

Teachers must listen their charges

Fredriksson notes that what makes preschools and kindergartens unusual is that people who work there can’t just ignore all the crying and shouting. In this wall of noise may be a brick or two of important information, such as kids who are hungry, or have to go to the toilet, or who need help or want comforting.

In comparison to a workplace with a lot of machinery noise that employees can tune out, preschool teachers actually need to listen to the children, even if may affect their hearing.

“Preschool teachers have a much higher risk of hearing damage than people in other jobs with a similar noise level,” Fredriksson said. “Their symptoms can be triggered by an active, energetic and often chaotic work environment that makes it difficult to use hearing protection.”

Acoustics are important

Fredriksson thinks that it will be difficult to solve this problem. It's not just about numbers of children, but also because the children are often outside.

"Hearing protection and earplugs are what you would normally use when noise levels get too high and you have no other option," she says.

“But the way the room is designed and its acoustics also have a lot to say in how noisy it gets. In a large room with solid walls, noise levels will still be high no matter how educational or strategic you are with your work,” Fredriksson said.

However, Marit Skogstad says there is not always a correlation between what people experience as having an impact on hearing, and what kind of hearing damage they actually have. She is head of research at the Department of Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology at the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI).

"The fact that people report hearing loss does not mean they actually hear badly," she says.

References:

Sofie Fredrksson: Hearing-related symptoms among women - Occurrence and risk in relation to occupational noise and stressful working conditions. PhD thesis at the University of Gothenburg. June 2018. Summary.

Lie A et al: Støy i arbeidslivet og helse (Noise in work and health). STAMI report: The Norwegian Institute of Occupational Health. 2013.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no.

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