When we think about PPE, we typically think of steel-toed boots, hard hats, and leather gloves. All of which are important to keeping workers safe. But what about their hearing? According to the CDC, occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States among the 22 million U.S. workers exposed to hazardous noise in the workplace every year. Of the industries where hearing loss often occurs, the most common cases occur in those that utilize heavy equipment and machinery such as mining, construction, and manufacturing. And the troubles don’t end with the health and safety implications. High noise also takes a financial on employers responsible for workers’ compensation. $242 million is spent on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability alone. Beyond personal hearing protection (PHP), what can an employer do? Well, you can implement regular audiometric testing with audiograms.
What is an Audiogram?
An audiogram is a chart that results from an audiometric test to measure an employee’s hearing. This is done with the help of an audiometer and a healthcare professional trained on its use. The subject receives a series of different tones and will indicate whether they heard the tone. This will be done across a series of sound levels and frequencies to identify the lowest tone and sound the subject can hear in each ear. The end result is a clear audiogram measuring the person’s hearing acuity and sharpness. Conducting these tests over time will determine if hearing loss has occurred and whether it is permanent.
A baseline audiogram should be performed soon after an employee is hired, before or after they’ve been exposed to workplace noise. Ideally, it should be given no later than six months after their first exposure. This audiogram will effectively be the same for all the ones that follow throughout an employee’s career. However, this one acts as a reference against which all future audiograms will be compared to determine the extent of hearing damage. This one is particularly important as if conducted improperly or too late, it will not represent the employee’s true threshold and affect the results of future tests.
Following the baseline audiogram, employers should provide annual audiograms within 1 year of the baseline test. Annual testing is essential to identify deterioration and catch it before it can progress further. Catching damage early on allows employers to take follow-up measures to prevent further damage.
There are many benefits of regular audiograms. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
- Financial – As we mentioned before, compensation for hearing loss is one of the most common worker compensation claims. As such, audiograms help identify and prevent hearing loss before such a need arises. That saves both you as the employer money as well as your employees’ hearing.
- Preventive – Regular audiograms can catch hearing loss early and allow you to take the necessary steps to prevent irreparable damage. This is simply a matter of knowing when there’s a problem before it worsens.
- Safety – Hearing is essential to keep employees safe. Someone with substantial hearing loss may not hear sirens, warnings, or accidents happening around them. As such, they would be unable to react in time. That’s why taking steps to protect employee hearing should be considered part of your safety policies as a whole.
- Diagnosis – As we mentioned before, audiograms can and will identify hearing loss. Doing so shortly after an employee is exposed to damaging sound can help you identify the sources and the steps you can take to either lower the sound or take additional steps to protect workers.
Does Your Workplace Require a Hearing Conservation Program?
Audiograms are a key component of hearing conservation programs. These programs are designed to prevent initial occupational hearing loss and protect remaining hearing as well as equip workers with the knowledge and equipment to protect their hearing.
According to OSHA, these programs are required “whenever employee noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average sound level (TWA) of 85 decibels measured on the A scale (slow response) or, equivalently, a dose of fifty percent. For purposes of the hearing conservation program, employee noise exposures shall be computed in accordance with Appendix A and Table G-16a, and without regard to any attenuation provided by the use of personal protective equipment”
Simply put, determining whether your workplace requires regular audiograms as part of a hearing conservation program, will depend on the average noise level of your workplace. You will need to monitor these noise levels while accounting for common employee exposure. This monitoring should be conducted by an experienced and certified industrial hygienist familiar with the relevant proctors and calculations.