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Hearing conservation

Health First Occupational Medicine

"Hearing conservation" is a broad term used to describe all aspects of preventing hearing loss due to noise. The primary locations for hearing conservation programs are in heavy industry, such as stamping or printing, and the military. There is also a movement now in the music and recreational areas to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that each day, approximately 5.2 million workers in American industries are exposed to excessive or near-excessive noise levels in the workplace — 100 percent of the permissible exposure level (PEL) of 90 dBA during a continuous eight hour period.

OSHA's Occupational Noise Standard (29 CFR 1910.95) and Hearing Conservation Amendment establish permissible exposure levels, and require employers to reduce employees' exposure to those levels with adequate engineering and administrative controls or appropriate hearing protection. These regulations require companies to implement an ongoing, effective hearing conservation program for all workers exposed to noise at or above the established "action level" (50% of the PEL).

Occupational hearing conservation

Qualified professionals can measure noise levels and averages of noise levels throughout a work period using sound level meters and noise dosimetry. If the meters indicate the worksite is too noisy, there are two basic options. The first option is to reduce the overall noise to acceptable levels, and the other is to implement a hearing conservation program. This program could mean merely limiting the time employees work in the noisy environment (administrative controls) or doing a full-scale program. Typically the full program is the most practical route.

What is included in an effective program?

Three primary components make up an effective program, according to OSHA.

  • First there must be education and training of the employees about the effects of noise on hearing, and the importance and benefits of using hearing protection.
  • An initial, or baseline, hearing test must be performed on each employee working in a noise hazardous area. New employees must be tested within a certain time frame, and exiting employees (when practical) need exit hearing tests.
  • The last major component is fitting each employee in the program with hearing protection appropriate for his or her noise exposure.

Monitoring noise levels and keeping records to document the program should also be included.

Why should I have a hearing conservation program?

In addition to meeting OSHA regulations and protecting employees' hearing, occupational hearing conservation programs can save your company money. Employees who are not protected from hazardous noise have a strong case to sue — and win — just as any other job-related disability. If an employee claims a hearing loss, hearing program and test records can indicate whether the hearing loss occurred before, during, or after working at your company. This is also why an exit hearing test is important.

Won't this be expensive and take a lot of time?

Expense is relative. Hearing conservation needs to be considered a cost of doing business — sort of an "insurance policy." And really, it isn't expensive at all. Depending on the number of employees and organization of supervisors, most companies can have everyone tested in a matter of one to two days, working all shifts to maximize attendance regardless of work schedules. Each test takes only a few minutes so it's a very minor interruption in the workday. Health First Occupational Medicine understands it's important to minimize an employee's time away from work, so we schedule appointments to process people quickly.

Various surveys conducted over the past 20 years indicate that up to 40 percent of Americans employed in manufacturing facilities are exposed to potentially hazardous noise (85 dBA time-weighted averages or above). Today, noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most prevalent occupational diseases and injuries identified by National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Improved worker productivity and decreased noise-related accidents must be considered when analyzing the hearing conservation standard from a cost-benefit perspective. In addition, cost savings are related to decreased workers' compensation awards, hearing aid costs, hearing testing and rehabilitation. Let Health First Occupational Medicine save you money.