Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Developing and Managing an Effective Hearing Conservation Program: By Implementing the Five Main Components of an OSHA-Approved Hearing Conservation Program and Examining Recent Hearing Protector Attenuation Research, You Can Make Your Hearing Conservation Program More Effective

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Developing and Managing an Effective Hearing Conservation Program: By Implementing the Five Main Components of an OSHA-Approved Hearing Conservation Program and Examining Recent Hearing Protector Attenuation Research, You Can Make Your Hearing Conservation Program More Effective

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

OSHA's first line of defense against hazardous noise involves engineering and administrative controls on equipment or manufacturing processes. If these fail, the Occupational Noise Exposure Standard and Hearing Conservation Amendment (29 CFR 1910.95) outlines a rigorous, employee-oriented program to mitigate risks of noise exposure in the workplace.

The standard mandates that personal protective equipment shall be provided and that employers administer a continuing, effective hearing conservation program when employee exposure levels equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average sound level (TWA) of 85 dBA. A common rule of thumb to determine when hearing protection is needed is that if you have to shout over the background noise to communicate with someone an arm's length away, the noise level probably is hazardous. OSHA, however, requires noise monitoring when exposure levels in the workplace "equal or exceed" the 85 dBA action level.

Monitoring

Monitoring requires the use of sound level meters to sample area noise and dosimeters to record an employee's noise exposure. While area sampling provides a good understanding of general noise levels throughout a facility, personal dosimetry documents an employee's complete exposure during the course of his or her workday. As employees move about during the day and are exposed to a variety of noises and noise levels, dosimetry provides the best indication of an individual's TWA.

In-house staff can perform monitoring, as long as the equipment properly is calibrated to ensure accuracy. However, many companies contract with outside surveillance consultants or utilize their own liability insurers to perform this service and make appropriate recommendations.

Noise monitoring must be performed any time there is a noticeable change in machinery or manufacturing processes, whether the noise levels increase or decrease. Posting a "noise map" of the facility in an accessible location gives employees a visual reference of areas where hearing protection devices (HPDs) must be worn, and identifies other areas where it is a good idea to keep HPDs handy. Posting specific decibel levels in work areas also helps employees select the right protector for their application.

Audiometric Testing

According to the OSHA standard, all new employees are required to undergo an audiometric test within 6 months of hire, and all noise-exposed employees must be tested annually. Individual results are compared from year to year to determine if hearing has remained stable or changed.

Audiometric testing must be conducted by a trained professional, and can be done in-house or outsourced to industrial clinics and audiology practices. Many practices offer mobile testing services that suit a wide variety of company sizes and schedules--especially if a company works three shifts--to minimize employee downtime. The National Hearing Conservation Association maintains a list of competent mobile testing services (http://www.hearingconservation.org).

Include the TWA of an employee's noise exposure in his or her job description or employment file. This can help an audiologist better understand an employee's occupational noise history when interpreting audiograms. Make certain your testing service provides the required baseline comparisons, and that the follow-up reports are understandable. You also are required to maintain all documentation, but more on recordkeeping later.

While audiometric technicians can administer an audiogram, only audiologists, otolaryngologists and physicians may interpret the test results. Often, these providers can send out any notifications as required by the OSHA standard. Research shows that when employees receive copies of their audiograms or explanations of the results at the time of testing, rates of noise-induced hearing loss decrease.

Training

To comply with the standard, all employees exposed to the 85 dBA action level must receive annual training, which includes information on the effects of noise exposure; the use, selection and fitting of hearing protectors; and audiometric testing procedures. …

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