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UI researchers identify U.S. workers who use voice as their primary tool

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Teachers make up about four percent of the United States workforce, but account for nearly 20 percent of patients seen at voice disorders clinics, according to researchers at the University of Iowa.

In a report published in the September issue of the Journal of Voice, Ingo Titze, UI professor of speech pathology and audiology, and his colleagues used U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information and other sources to identify the percentage of professional voice users in the working U.S. population. They defined professional voice users as those who depend on a consistent, special or appealing voice quality as a primary tool of trade, and those who, if afflicted with voice problems, would generally be discouraged in their jobs and seek other types of employment.

The researchers also studied data collected from patients of voice clinics at the UI and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to help determine which professionals are treated most. Teachers constituted about 20 percent of the clinic loads.

"This is not really surprising. From the patients we've seen here at our clinic, and from other research studies, we know that a fair number of teachers experience voice disorders, especially those who use their voices seven periods a day," Titze says. "Teachers may not be at the greatest risk, but part of what they do is teach others where to get help. So perhaps they are more likely to get help themselves."

Professional singers were the next highest percentage of patients seen at voice clinics (11.5 percent), followed by salespeople (10.3 percent), clerical workers (9 percent) and factory workers (6 percent).

The largest sector of professionals who could be regarded as professional voice users are those in sales and sales-oriented occupations, constituting about 13 percent (nearly 16 million people) of the total U.S. workforce. This includes telemarketers, travel agents, auctioneers and stock traders.

"The clinic-load percentage among salespeople is about equal to their workforce percentage," Titze says. "But those salespeople who do their jobs primarily over the telephone all day typically are going to have more voice disorders."

Other workers listed as professional voice users included lawyers and judges, psychologists and counselors, clergy, telephone operators, receptionists, actors, broadcasters, interviewers and recruiters, and public relations specialists.

Overuse is not the only factor that can contribute to voice problems on the job. Smoking, allergies, exposure to airborne substances and even acid reflux can play a part. "In many cases it's a combination of what you do to your body in addition to using your voice extensively that leads to voice problems," Titze says. Hoarseness, nodules and even polyps on the vocal folds are conditions often treated at voice clinics.

Making people aware of the importance of caring for their voice and getting help when they have problems is key, Titze notes. "Most people tend to think the only professional voice users are actors and singers. But if you need your voice to do your job, you need to treat your voice as any professional would treat a valuable tool or piece of equipment," he says. "The trouble is, a lot of people in the workforce who experience voice disorders don't think much about it. They'll just keep going until their voice doesn't work anymore."