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Hearing Loss is a Safety and Work Comp Issue

Sunday, November 24, 2002 | 930 | 0 | min read

Occupational hearing loss is becoming more of a problem for both employees and employers according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). About 30,000,000 United States workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise on the job and another 9,000,000 are at risk for hearing loss from exposure to certain chemicals, solvents and metals.

Hearing loss is not just a physical issue either. As one of the primary senses, hearing is essential to communication, and without good communication business cannot function properly, or may operate at hazardous levels.

Problems created by occupational hearing loss include impaired communication with co-workers, family members and the public; diminished ability to monitor the work environment; lost productivity and increased accidents resulting from impaired communication; increased expenses for workers' compensation and health benefits; and reduced quality of life from social isolation and unrelenting tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

The most common sources of occupational noise in heavy industry include processes such as metal stamping, furnace combustion and other machinery noises. Noise from support systems such as motors, compressed air and part/material impact is also common. Other noise sources becoming common in the construction and service industries include leaf blowers, power tools and personal entertainment units used as relief from boredom on the job.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that workers exposed to levels of 85 decibels or greater be included in a company-sponsored hearing conservation program. That program includes annual hearing tests and training, noise monitoring, use of hearing protection devices and record-keeping of all measurements and testing.

The first line of defense against noise-induced hearing loss issues at the workplace is to ask employees whether they're experiencing hearing problems, then investigate whether noise can be minimized or eliminated from the work area. This is the precursor to establishing a hearing loss prevention program. A successful occupational hearing loss prevention program can fully prevent or reduce hearing loss issues. The basic components of such a program consists of noise exposure monitoring, engineering and administrative controls, audio metric evaluation, use of hearing protection devices, education and motivation, record-keeping, program evaluation and hearing loss prevention audits.

A comprehensive noise exposure survey is the first place to start. When implementing a hearing loss prevention program it's important to measure noise and determine worker interaction. This is essentially a test of whether productivity is slowed because of noise. An evaluation of whether people have their concentration broken to focus on the noise when it reaches a certain level will determine whether noise has gone beyond an occupational hazard, and adversely affects your profits.

Those at risk for hearing loss need to be provided with hearing tests which are sufficiently sensitive to identify hearing loss early before it becomes debilitating. Employees should be provided with adequate protection against the effects of noise and they should be given knowledge of what noise can do and how they can protect themselves.

Noise sources need to be addressed and a feasible control needs to be identified. A long term plan should include replacing older machines with quieter equipment and implementing proven, effective noise-control measures. The system needs to be put into place to monitor the progress the program and detect strengths and weaknesses through an audit or program evaluation.

Another important part of an effective hearing loss prevention program is the distribution and use of appropriate hearing protection devices such as ear muffs, ear canal caps and ear plugs. Employees need to be educated on the use of hearing protection and inspections need to regularly be made to determine when hearing protectors need to be repaired or replaced, as well as to ensure compliance with company hearing protection rules.

Reliable annual audio metric monitoring is also necessary to determine whether occupational hearing loss is being prevented and to identify employees who may be experiencing temporary threshold shifts (temporary hearing loss after noise exposure). Employers can then identify hearing loss trends and react accordingly.

Most workers' compensation insurance companies, through their loss prevention and safety assistance departments, are happy to assist in the evaluation of and development of hearing loss prevention programs. As with other occupational hazards, your insurance company has a vested interest in reducing or eliminating hazards - take advantage of what you are already paying for: expert consultation and assistance in the reduction of occupational hazards.

While hearing loss is not a major cost component in the grand scheme of workers' compensation expenses, there are issues beyond the cost of your insurance premium that dictate a solid hearing loss prevention program.

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