Every day, workers everywhere are exposed to noise during their workday that may be loud enough – or occasionally loud enough – to be damaging to their hearing. Without adequate protection and procedures, long-term damage can occur. This is why workplace safety, and hearing conservation programs, are essential for long-term health and well-being.
The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers must incorporate a hearing conservation program when workers are exposed to an average noise level of 85dB over an 8-hour workday. 85dB sounds like a freight train (at 15 meters), a garbage disposal, dishwasher, or a milling machine. 90dB sounds like a Boeing 737 flying at one nautical mile before landing, a power mower, a motorcycle at 25 feet, or a newspaper press. And 100dB – which will cause serious damage if exposure lasts for 8 hours – is equivalent to the sound of a jet taking off, a farm tractor, or a jackhammer. These are not uncommon sounds for many average working North Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “four million workers go to work each day in damaging noise conditions. Ten million people in the U.S. have a noise-related hearing loss. Twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year.”
In order to maintain compliance with OSHA guidelines related to occupational hearing conservation programs, every employee whose work environment exposes them to noise levels of 85dB over an 8 hour period is required to undergo a hearing test for the purpose of producing a baseline audiogram. This test is to be provided by the employer and must be done within the first 6 months of employment. Sooner would be better.
So, what is a baseline audiogram?
A baseline audiogram is intended to provide a reference point for future audiometric tests. This is the audiogram against which future audiograms are compared, making it possible to determine if an employee’s hearing has changed since that initial hearing test was performed. This baseline may determine that the employee joined the organization with mild, moderate, or even severe hearing loss. The initial level of hearing is not the goal of obtaining a baseline test, and employees should not be concerned with where their hearing thresholds levels lie. It’s the comparative results over time that are imperative to monitor in a hearing conservation program.
The periodic/annual audiogram
With a baseline audiogram now on file, the employees move into an annual cycle of hearing testing. The ongoing hearing test results are then compared against the identified ear-specific baselines, allowing the employer to take appropriate measures if a shift in hearing is detected. These changes are recorded as a Standard Threshold Shift (STS).
Standard Threshold Shift
A Standard Threshold Shift is a detectable change in hearing as compared to the baseline audiogram. The American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a change as an average shift of 10dB or more at 2000, 3000, and 4000 Hz in either ear. If a shift is identified, follow-up actions are required by both the employer and employee. The employer is obligated to inform the employee within 21 days of the determination of a hearing shift and refer them to an audiologist for follow-up testing and possibly treatment. Employees – who should already be wearing proper hearing protection – may require another work environment noise assessment and/or updated hearing protection recommendations. Additionally, this may be a good opportunity to revisit the proper insertion and placement of various hearing protectors.
Implementing and managing an occupational hearing conservation program is not a simple task. If you administer the program yourself in-house or outsource it to a trusted service provider, the process can be time-consuming. And whether you have ten or 10,000 employees, the simple task of scheduling annual tests can turn into a full-time job! Sending employees off-site to be tested, or employing trucks to bring testing to your employees can be an expensive endeavor. This is where the right mobile system with integrated paperless data management can help you automate much of the program workflow.
Today, SHOEBOX Audiometry is changing how many of our customers administer their hearing conservation programs. Our systems are easy-to-use, lightweight and portable. Thanks to our integrated noise monitoring capabilities, SHOEBOX helps you produce accurate results even when testing is done outside of a sound booth (in a reasonably quiet environment). Best of all, it can be used to automate baseline shift detections, taking away any guesswork. And our cloud-based web portal for accessing, managing, analyzing, and reporting employee data in an online environment is helping more customers move to a paperless solution. If you have questions about how we can help streamline your hearing conservation efforts, click here to contact us.