Managing people

Managing hearing impairment in the workplace

With one in seven Australians affected by hearing loss, chances are you have, or will have, an employee with a hearing impairment at some point in time.

When navigating daily work life, a hearing impaired employee face challenges in the work environment that you may not have considered. 

For example, they could struggle to decipher communication on a phone conference or mishear vital instructions during workplace training. Hearing impairments can also affect an employee’s physical safety in the workplace, causing them to miss important audio safety cues like the approaching sound of a forklift.

Because of this, it’s essential for you to understand your obligations regarding hearing impairments in the workplace. This helps minimise risks and better accommodate for hearing impaired employees, both now and in the future.

Hearing impairment in the workplace ranges from employees with a minor hearing disadvantage to those with an outright disability. Learn more about hearing impairment, your obligations, and tips for working with hearing impaired employees below.

What is hearing impairment?

Hearing impairment occurs when someone loses part, or all, of the ability to hear. An employee with a hearing impairment may have difficulty hearing consonants in ordinary speech, reducing speech to booming vowels. Another employee may be distracted with the whooshings and rustlings of tinnitus, which are internal head noises often associated with hearing loss.

This loss of hearing has numerous causes, but the most common include excessive exposure to loud sounds or ageing. The severity of hearing loss can vary from one individual to another, and ranges from decreased audibility to deafness.

There are many ways to diagnose and measure the severity of impairment, but the most commonly accepted is to measure hearing loss in decibels (dB). This test measures how loud a sound has to be before a person can hear it. 

It classes hearing loss into the following categories for adults:

  • Mild: ≥ 25dB and <45dB

  • Moderate: ≤ 45dB and <65dB

  • Severe: ≥ 65dB

When is hearing loss considered a disability?

There is no strict guideline for when hearing loss is officially considered a disability for employers in Australia. However, someone with moderate to severe hearing impairment over 65dB in the better ear is generally eligible to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Employer obligations for hearing impairment in the workplace

Hearing impairments are covered under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Employers have the same obligations to hearing impaired employees as they do towards people with other disabilities.

Employers cannot discriminate against an employee because of their disability, and must offer hearing impaired employment opportunities. Not hiring an employee on the grounds of their hearing impairment could be considered disability discrimination.

In addition, employers have the same duty of care to provide a healthy and safe work environment for hearing impaired employees. This means any risks that could arise as a result of hearing impaired employment must be managed. Employers must also make reasonable adjustments for a current or potential candidate with hearing impairment. 

Reasonable adjustments could include modifying work arrangements for the employee, such as giving them a quiet workspace with minimal background noise. Another reasonable adjustment could be providing the employee with equipment, such as a hearing aid or audio loop.

Risk management for hearing impaired employees

Many employers are tempted to insist the best form of risk management for hearing impaired employees is to have them wear hearing aids. 

While hearing aids are one of the risk management measures for hearing impaired employees, it is by no means a blanket solution. Many hearing impaired employees may find hearing aids impossible to deal with. The hearing aid could amplify every ambient noise, or parts of the hearing aid may sit uncomfortably in the wearer’s ear.   

Due to the limitations of hearing aids, it’s essential to incorporate additional risk management measures and adjustments to accommodate for hearing impaired employees. Simply requesting all employees with hearing impairments wear hearing aids could result in hearing impaired discrimination at work. 

Tips for accommodating hearing impaired employees

There are many reasonable adjustments employers can make to accommodate hearing impairment workplace needs. Conducting trainings, implementing technological solutions, and adjusting work spaces greatly benefits hearing impaired employees, and helps them perform at their best.

Your work environment should take the hearing impairment workplace needs and challenges of an employee into account. One of the most straightforward ways to do this is to create a workspace that is quiet and well-lit.

Good natural and artificial lighting is essential for employees with hearing impairments, as they need to clearly see other peoples’ faces when having a conversation. In addition, remove glass barriers whenever possible as these muffle sounds and make it harder to make out what someone is saying.

Finally, employees should be situated in a quiet office or working space with minimal background noise. Ambient noises can be distracting, particularly if an employee has hearing aids or is regularly required to speak on the phone.

Building an inclusive work environment for hearing impaired employees is a team effort. Provide other employees with tips for communicating effectively with a colleague with hearing loss, such as:

  • speaking with their face turned towards their colleague

  • using visual cues, such as hand gestures

  • adjusting their speaking volume slightly so their colleagues can better hear what they are saying

  • asking the person how they would like to be communicated with, both in terms of pace and volume

  • pausing from time to time to allow their coworker to catch up and ask questions.

In many workplaces, technology helps facilitate effective communication and manage risks and hazards associated with hearing impairment.

Strobe lights on alarms, vibrating pagers or multiple frequency alarms are beneficial to warn hearing impaired employees of an emergency. Employers could also consider bringing in Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) writers, who transcribe spoken words for the employee.

An employee with hearing impairments may struggle to follow everything that is said in a meeting, particularly if multiple people are talking. 

To run successful meetings, ensure any information is presented visually as well as orally. This could be done by using Powerpoint presentations, videos with captions, or written notes. It’s also important to remind other employees to slow down their speech when communicating, as many people speak faster when they are nervous.

You could also consider asking hearing impaired employees to submit any questions or points they would like to address in the meeting before it starts. Doing so means you can ensure their needs are met even if they have issues following the discussion during the meeting.

These are just a few of the strategies you can adopt to better cater for employees with hearing impairments in the workplace. Above all else, keep in mind you should make adjustments on a case-by-case basis for your employees. This way, you create the best environment possible for them to perform at their best.

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