If you've ever walked into a preschool, you'll know they're quite the harsh cacophony. There are babies crying, kids squealing in the playground, nursery rhymes and the clash and clatter of toys. That's why the results of a new study, which found that a high proportion of preschool teachers have hearing-related problems, may not be completely surprising.
But they are concerning.
The research, conducted by University of Gothenburg, found that seven out of ten preschool teachers suffer from "sound-induced auditory fatigue". Around 50 per cent have difficulty understanding speech while four out of ten become hypersensitive to sound.
"We have an occupational group with much higher risk for these symptoms, and if nothing is done about it, it's really alarming," says researcher Sofie Fredriksson of the findings. "We have to lower sound levels, have a calmer preschool." But with numerous studies putting sound levels in preschools around the equivalent level 80 decibels, it's clear they're far from "calm" places to work.
As part of her research, Dr Fredriksson surveyed 4,718 preschool teachers and compared them to a group of controls. She found that 71 percent experienced sound-induced auditory fatigue. This meant, for example, that after a day at work, they were unable to listen to the radio. In contrast, the issue affected just 32 per cent of women from the control group.
"Anecdotal evidence from preschool teachers explain how they express an urgent need for silence after a day at work, which may conflict with other family members and with social life," Dr Fredriksson says.
Almost half of the preschool participants (46 per cent) had problems understanding speech, compared to 26 per cent of controls. And 39 per cent said they experienced discomfort or physical pain in their ears from everyday sounds.
"Preschool teachers have a much higher risk than those who work in environments with a similar noise rating," Dr Fredriksson explains. "The symptoms can be triggered by the boisterous environment, and it's also difficult to use hearing protection."
And this issue is key.
Unlike other work places where excessive noise can be screened out, Dr Fredriksson notes that preschool teachers are exposed to voices and screams that often convey important information or "communication-intensive noise". In other words, they can't be ignored.
But there's no easy solution, either. "Hearing protection devices are normally the main intervention if the sound level cannot be reduced in another way, and it may be necessary if you have a child who subjects your ears to crying for a whole day during their introductory period at preschool," says Dr Frederiksson. "But the design of the premises and room acoustics also have to be considered. In a large room with solid walls, it becomes noisy no matter how educational and strategic you are in your work."
A 2016 study into protective hearing devices in the childcare setting highlighted a number of issues with their use. Not only are teachers concerned about missing out on information during conversations, it's unpleasant wearing them around parents "and not considered reasonable" to do so. "These factors should thus also be considered when recommending preventive measures and the goal should rather be to decrease the sound levels and improve the sound environment, than to merely promote the use of hearing protection among personnel," Dr Frederkisson says.
While her study can't make definitive conclusions around the cause of the hearing problems, she says that the findings have important implications. "The notably high relative risks found in this study should not be ignored regardless of the cause of the reported symptoms."
Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe explains that it's an issue the AEU is aware of. "On occasions our early childhood members have raised this concern with us and we work with them and the preschool service provider to minimise the risk, as we would with any OHS concern," she explains, adding that some noise is also inevitable in these environments.
"Elevated noise levels are regarded as part of the work of being an early childhood educator," Ms Haythorpe says. "Young children can get noisy and excited! But most educators and providers will already have measures in place to ensure noise levels are not overwhelming and damaging. Early childhood teachers are very skilled at managing large groups of small children to maintain a level of calm."
But the issue isn't just one for preschool teachers and centre managers.
"While we would always encourage teachers and educators to work collectively with workplace management on strategies to minimise the risk as a very real OHS issue, it is important to note that government also has an important role to play," Ms Haythorpe says. "Not only is workplace safety regulated at a government level, the government also has a responsibility to fund preschool services appropriately so that new noise reduction technologies can be installed."
Ms Haythrope notes that some early childhood centres are being retrofitted with "sound-minimising panel" and new centres are also being built with this issue in mind. "Sometimes it's as simple as considering the interior design of workplaces," she says.
On a more practical level, preschool teachers can also employ strategies related to how they engage with kids in their care. "There will be opportunities to divide the group between indoor and outdoor environments, there will be dedicated spaces to assist children to self-sooth and self-regulate," Ms Haythorpe explains.
"We would also encourage teachers to raise any concerns early so that any hearing issues are not sustained."