NIHL & Hearing Conservation Program
A Hearing Conservation Program consisting of noise hazard identification, hearing protection, education, hearing testing and noise reduction, will reduce the potential of WSIB claims lasting decades.
Common side effects of hearing loss include:
- Communication Problems
- Social Isolation
- High Blood Pressure
Noise induced hearing loss
Noise induced hearing loss is a permanent hearing impairment resulting from prolonged exposure to high levels of noise. One in 10 Americans has a hearing loss that affects his or her ability to understand normal speech. Excessive noise exposure is the most common cause of hearing loss.
“The National Institute of Health reports that about 15 percent of Americans aged 20 to 69 have high frequency hearing loss related to occupational or leisure activities.”
NIHL begins by impairing the ability to hear high pitch sounds such as beeps and whistles. It is these tones that break up words into syllables, without which, voices (particularly women’s and children’s) sound muffled, as though they were talking with their hands over your mouth. These tones also provide the directional cues that help us locate the source of a sound. Diminished ability to hear these tones can lead to accidents, miscommunication, and other costly mistakes both on the job and elsewhere. And eventually, the hearing loss begins to spread to the lower pitch tones as well, making it difficult to hear all voices, music, and many other things in our everyday life.
“Torey Nalbone, associate professor and chair of civil engineering at the University of Texas at Tyler, suggests it’s the unprotected noises that we take for granted that are short durations at significant intensity levels – those are the ones that are sneaking up on workers and causing hearing conservation problems.”
Impact of NIHL
Employees with noise induced hearing loss often describe their lives as one of isolation, both at work and at home. They get confused and are unable to follow conversations, especially in crowded, noisy places. And because they have trouble hearing voices, they often live under tremendous anxiety and stress that affects both their job and their family life.
Under OSHA rules, the permissible exposure limit for noise in the construction industry is 90 decibels, measured as an 8-hour time-weighted average. At that level, employers are required to provide a hearing conservation program for workers. However, NIOSH advocates lowering the PEL in construction to 85 dBA, which is the cap OSHA sets for general industry.
Hearing Conservation: When an employer is required to provide hearing protectors
Employers must provide hearing protectors to all workers exposed to 8-hour TWA noise levels of 85 dB or above. This requirement ensures that employees have access to protectors before they experience any hearing loss.
Employees must wear hearing protectors:
- For any period exceeding 6 months from the time they are first exposed to 8-hour TWA noise levels of 85 dB or above, until they receive their baseline audiograms if these tests are delayed due to mobile test van scheduling;
- If they have incurred standard threshold shifts that demonstrate they are susceptible to noise; and
- If they are exposed to noise over the permissible exposure limit of 90 dB over an 8-hour TWA.
Employers must provide employees with a selection of at least one variety of hearing plug and one variety of hearing muff. Employees should decide, with the help of a person trained to fit hearing protectors, which size and type protector is most suitable for the working environment. The protector selected should be comfortable to wear and offer sufficient protection to prevent hearing loss.
Hearing protectors must adequately reduce the noise level for each employee’s work environment. Most employers use the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) that represents the protector’s ability to reduce noise under ideal laboratory conditions. The employer then adjusts the NRR to reflect noise reduction in the actual working environment.
The employer must reevaluate the suitability of the employee’s hearing protector whenever a change in working conditions may make it inadequate. If workplace noise levels increase, employees must give employees more effective protectors. The protector must reduce employee exposures to at least 90 dB and to 85 dB when an STS already has occurred in the worker’s hearing. Employers must show employees how to use and care for their protectors and supervise them on the job to ensure that they continue to wear them correctly. 
Prevention: Establish a workplace Hearing Conservation Program
Most NIHL is due to over-exposure to high noise levels in the workplace and it is the responsibility of the employer to prevent this over-exposure with a hearing conservation program. This does not simply mean giving them some hearing protectors and leaving them on their own. What type of hearing protector is appropriate? What is the appropriate noise reduction rating for the protectors? Do you know the actual noise level the will be used in? How will you ensure the hearing protectors will be worn properly (or at all)? Have you considered reducing the noise at the source? This could potentially eliminate the risk altogether. Maybe the cost of buying a quieter hand tool is less than the long-term cost of the hearing protectors. A comprehensive HCP will deal with all of these issues and ensure the long-term hearing safety of the workers.
A comprehensive Hearing Conservation Program consists of the following elements:
- Noise Survey and Noise Dosimetry measurement
- Engineered noise control
- Hazard postings
- Hearing Protectors (See dB Blockers)
- Baseline & annual hearing tests
- Hearing Safety Education and Training
- Annual program review
So if you are looking to reduce noise where you can, provide hearing protection devices where you can’t, help the participants understand the program and how it benefits them, and check them regularly for hearing loss, then we suggest you get a Hearing Conservation Program tailored to your company’s needs.
A strong emphasis must be put on the educational components of the program. These will be the cornerstone of the program and will play a large part in the relative success.
Hearing Conservation Resources: