We have been investigating claims related to defective 3M earplugs used by members of our armed forces. Why are these defective earplugs an important issue? To answer that question, we need to examine first the impact of hearing loss and tinnitus on our veterans. I thought hearing loss and tinnitus among veterans may be a good topic for this post.
Veterans Suffer Significant Hearing Loss And Tinnitus Problems
Are hearing problems a major issue for veterans? Here is what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says about the issue:
Hearing problems—including tinnitus, which is a ringing, buzzing, or other type of noise that originates in the head—are by far the most prevalent service-connected disability among American Veterans.
Hearing loss and tinnitus are by far the most common service-related disabilities among veterans. Tinnitus is often described as ringing or buzzing in one or both ears. Tinnitus is typically a symptom of an underlying injury to the person’s outer, middle or inner ear.
Many members of the armed services are exposed to high levels of noise. This includes both sudden loud noises as well as extended periods of loud noise. Loud exposures impact all branches and areas of the military. The number of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with hearing loss is staggering. The data from veteran disability claims clearly shows hearing loss numbers rise as military members experience deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Members Of The Armed Services Need Hearing Protection
Whether serving in the infantry, with artillery, aboard a naval ship or around planes, members of our armed services need hearing protection. They are exposed to serious hearing risks. That’s where the 3M earplugs enter the picture.
Between 2003 and 2015, Aero Technologies and 3M Company (which acquired Aero in 2008) sold millions of its dual-ended Combat Arms earplugs to our Department of Defense. The earplugs were standard issue protective equipment. When worn on one side, the earplugs were intended to block all noise. When worn on the other side, the earplugs were supposed to protect the wearer from loud blasts while allowing other sounds such as communications from commanding officers.
Yet, the earplugs were not designed properly. They did not fit correctly. They loosened (often imperceptibly) during use, putting the soldier at much higher risk for hearing damage.
In 2018, 3M settled claims with the U.S. government that it knowingly sold / supplied the defective earplugs. 3M and Aero were accused of knowing about the defect as well as manipulating test results so the earplugs would meet government standards.
Discovery of this earplug defect helps future soldiers avoid needless hearing loss. However, the 2018 3M settlement with our government does nothing for our individual veterans who suffered permanent injury. Hearing loss has long been a problem for veterans. Defective equipment creates even greater loss and disability.
Hearing Loss Impacts Work And Life
Our office does not handle VA disability claims. However, we do handle workers compensation claims under Alabama law. Because we handle work comp claims, we understand the impact of hearing loss on work and disability. I’ve worked with vocational experts in numerous work comp cases involving serious hearing loss, tinnitus and vertigo. Hearing loss, alone, can seriously impact the ability of a person to function in many work environments. Additionally, tinnitus, vertigo and other ear conditions can also prevent gainful employment.
Hearing loss and tinnitus can severely limit people at work, at home and in all of daily life. Research also indicates hearing loss increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia as a person ages. Some researchers point to physiological connections. However, many researchers believe the impact of the hearing loss on listening, communicating and engaging with others may lead to the later decline.
When a person’s level of hearing loss is substantial, it can severely impact life, home and work. Many of our service members exit the military at an age when they should see many, many good years of health and work in private life. Many veterans are still very young when they exit the military. That’s why personal protective equipment in the military (like specially designed earplugs) is so important.
Again, I’m happy to talk more about our investigation into 3M’s defective earplugs. I have very strong opinions about companies that wrongfully harm consumers. When the company cheats the government and injures service members protecting all of us, that’s even worse. But, for today, I’m just discussing the underlying need for hearing protection among service members. I’ll end by saying the VA has long worked to try and help service members with hearing loss. In 1997, the VA established the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research (NCRAR) to research and help veterans with hearing and balance problems. The NCRAR has conducted extensive research that has proven useful to our veterans.
If you want to discuss this issue or 3M earplugs in greater detail, let me know. Consumers (military and civilian) deserve products that are designed and tested with safety as the top priority.