Feds at Work: Identified and implemented solutions to combat noise-induced hearing loss

Hearing loss affects hundreds of thousands of sailors and Marines and costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year in treatments for veterans

Kurt Yankaskas, with the Office of Naval Research (Photo: Lawrence Jackson)

Exposure to thunderous noise onboard Navy ships — from jet engines, machine rooms, cockpits, firing ranges and other work locations — causes about one in four sailors to experience hearing loss. Throughout the military, hearing loss and tinnitus affect up to 600,000 personnel and cost the Department of Veterans Affairs an estimated $6 billion a year.

To turn the tide on the avoidable condition of noise-induced hearing loss, Kurt Yankaskas, program manager with the Office of Naval Research and vociferous advocate for preventing hearing loss, developed a wide-ranging program to prevent “auditory injury.” Collaborating within the Defense Department and outside, he seeks solutions from researchers and companies, and decides which technologies or techniques to test and implement.

According to Rick Rogers, principal research scientist at Harvard University, Yankaskas “leads the federal government’s premier research effort for combatting noise-induced hearing loss.”

When Navy personnel seek his help, Yankaskas pulls from an ever-growing acoustic toolbox that includes damping materials for ships and submarines; earplugs and other personal protection, and signage on ships to remind people to use it; and funding for promising research on reversing hearing loss and determining who is particularly susceptible.

“He’s definitely contributed to protecting hearing and preventing hearing loss of the young men and women who operate our ships and submarines,” said Rear Admiral Lorin Selby.

Yankaskas himself experienced temporary partial hearing loss from jet noise in the sleeping compartments of a Navy aircraft carrier he was evaluating for noise, after just a weekend on board, despite wearing hearing protection.

Long-term exposure to noise levels of about 85 decibels — about the level of a garbage disposal — can damage the auditory nerves and kill the hair-like fibers of the inner ear, leading to permanent hearing loss. And hearing loss can hamper the awareness and communication ability of sailors and Marines, compromising their safety.

Yankaskas’ work has led to custom-molded earplugs for more than 6,000 sailors; quieter, more efficient equipment for abrasive blasting of substances from ship hulls and walls; and computer-aided modeling technology for pinpointing the loudest areas of a ship, so the Navy can reduce the noise.

For the modeling technology, Yankaskas commissioned a measuring tool from a company to identify surfaces producing the loudest reverberations on Navy vessels. The Navy can coat those “hot spots” with a ceramic-like material to dampen the noise, rather than apply it to whole walls, thus saving weight — a critical need for ships.

The research Yankaskas commissions, and the technologies he finds, tests and recommends have been used by other federal and civilian organizations, including the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Through Yankaskas’ site visits and shared research, the military is more educated on the potential for noise-induced hearing loss and ways to prevent it, and his guidance and advocacy have led to training for tens of thousands of military personnel across the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force.

“He wants folks to always be mindful of how to preserve their hearing,” said Sharon Parish of the Naval Sea Systems Command.

Yankaskas also oversaw development of a mobile app on hearing health and has trained many sailors and Marines on the proper use of hearing protection. And he is the co-author, with several others, of a paper that led to a 2015 Department of Defense noise-limit standard for all new military vehicles, construction, portable air compressors and other equipment.

All these protective tactics have added up. “We’ve come light years from where we were 30 years ago when I was a young officer on submarines,” Selby said.

Yankaskas said he always keeps in mind the people he works to benefit.

“I straightforwardly work for the sailor and the Marine,” Yankaskas said. “They’re my North Star.”

Kurt Yankaskas is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help share their stories using #Sammies2019, and please help us recognize more inspiring federal employees in 2020 by submitting your nominations now.

Partnership for Public Service

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The Partnership works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.

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