November 19, 2018
Forklifts, table saws, bulldozers. These are common in the construction and manufacturing industries and require a certain level of personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to protect employees’ from damaging noise levels. Yes, you heard right (pun intended!). PPE is more than just steel-toed boots, hard hats, and eye protection; it also includes ear protection for employees who are regularly exposed to potentially damaging noise levels.
Occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the U.S., with about 22 million U.S. workers exposed to hazardous occupational noise each year. Hearing loss is most common in industries that require employees to be around heavy equipment and machinery, with mining (17 percent), construction (16 percent), and manufacturing (14 percent) being the most affected.1
Not only does hearing loss have health and safety implications for employees, but high noise exposure can take a financial toll on employers responsible for workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability. In fact, about $242 million is spent annually on workers' compensation for hearing loss disability.2
What are Employers Required to Provide to Protect Employees’ Hearing?
In an effort to prevent hearing loss, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that an employer provide hearing protection when a worker is exposed to 90 decibels (dB), the unit used for measuring relative loudness of sounds, averaged over eight working hours, also called an “eight-hour time-weighted average.” Examples of hearing protection include ear plugs or fitted ear muffs that help to reduce noise levels.
Hearing Conservation Program
According to OSHA, employers must make audiometric testing available at no cost to all employees who are exposed to an action level of 85 dB or above, measured as an 8-hour time weighted average.3 To put that in perspective, a quiet office is around 40 dB while a forklift is 87 dB and a bulldozer is 100 dB.
A hearing conservation program is an important part of protecting the health and well-being of your employees. Not only do these programs protect employees from occupational hearing loss, but they can also increase your employees’ general feeling of well-being and reduce the incidence of stress-related disease, since stress can decrease the blood flow that is necessary for the hair cells in the ear, which in return can increase their quality of work.
So, what does a hearing conservation program entail?
- Baseline Testing
A hearing conservation program includes a baseline audiogram, which takes place 14 hours or more after the employee was last exposed to occupational noise without the use of proper hearing protection. This baseline test will then be analyzed and the results will be communicated to the employee.
- Annual Audiograms
Following the baseline audiogram, annual audiograms should be performed to record any changes. These results will be analyzed and compared to previous tests to provide insights into how an employee’s hearing has changed. These changes are recorded as a Standard Threshold Shift (STS).
A Standard Threshold Shift is a detectable change in hearing when compared to the baseline audiogram. If a shift is identified, the employer is required to tell the employee within 21 days and refer them to an audiologist for follow-up testing and possibly treatment. This is also a good opportunity for both employers and employees to assess hearing protection methods and make any needed changes.
A licensed or certified physician is responsible for overseeing an employer’s hearing conservation program and reviewing the audiograms. If additional action is required, the provider will provide further care or a referral if appropriate.
Determining if Your Workplace Requires a Hearing Conservation Program or Hearing Protection
Now that you know the effects of occupational noise and the details of a hearing conservation program, your biggest question is probably, “Is my organization being affected by occupational noise?” Here are a few signs that you or your safety personnel should evaluate noise levels3:
- Your employees report ringing or humming in their ears after work.
- Your employees experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work.
- Your employees are having to shout at each other to be heard at an arm’s length away.
If any of these ring true, or if you have any concerns regarding occupational noise levels, ensure that your employees are wearing the proper PPE and taking the necessary precautions regarding occupational noise. In addition, many companies will actively measure and collect data on the noise levels in their work environments.
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