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Sirens put firefighters at greater risk for hearing loss, experts say

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:05 a.m.

The workplace hazard is unavoidable: Sirens put firefighters at greater risk for hearing loss, experts said on Tuesday.

“The damage is invisible. It's internal to your ear,” said Dr. Catherine V. Palmer, director of audiology and hearing aids in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “It's permanent damage, and it's generally gradual.”

Four Pittsburgh firefighters on Monday filed a civil lawsuit against seven manufacturers of sirens and firetrucks, claiming they are responsible for their permanent hearing loss. The firefighters — three of whom have worked for the city since 1981 — did not return calls, but in the lawsuit they claim the companies “knew or should have known that the products ... were inherently dangerous, defective and hazardous to human hearing.”

The lawsuit is among several similar ones filed by Philadelphia attorney Joseph Capelli and New York attorney Marc Bern.

“We believe it is without merit, and Mack Trucks will defend it accordingly,” said Kimberly Pupillo, a spokeswoman for the Allentown truck manufacturer, which is named as a defendant.

Chicago attorney Hamilton Hill, who represents siren manufacturer Federal Signal Corp., said the Illinois company prevailed in an “overwhelming majority” of similar cases that went to juries. Other lawsuits were dismissed, said Hill, who declined comment on the Pittsburgh lawsuit.

The other defendants did not return calls.

Ralph Sicuro, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, said some firefighters wear city-issued Styrofoam ear protectors, but “it's not like they're readily available at the engine house. ... I know at times guys have had them, but I don't have any myself.”

The union is not involved with the lawsuit. Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones, Public Safety Director Michael Huss and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office did not return calls for comment.

Studies of hearing damage to firefighters have long shown noise-induced hearing loss.

In 1992, former federal Fire Administrator Olin L. Greene said noise “is probably the most underrated health hazard” for firefighters. A 2007 study by University of California professor Oisaeng Hong, director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing Program at the school's campus in San Francisco, said roughly 40 percent of all firefighters in the United States are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

Both said ear protection can help reduce damage.

“These studies have also found a substantial increase in high-frequency hearing loss related to the amount of time spent in the emergency services. The cases of hearing loss are irreversible and incurable,” Greene said. “They are also preventable.”

Other manufacturers named as defendants in the lawsuit are: American LaFrance of South Carolina, E-One Inc. of Florida, Kovatch Mobile Equipment Corp. of Carbon County, Pierce Manufacturing Inc. of Wisconsin and Seagrave Fire Apparatus LLC of Harrisburg.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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