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Hearing Conservation

Implementing a Programme of Hearing Conservation in the Workplace

We have come a long way since the early days of the industrial revolution, a period that was characterised by a general disregard by factory owners for the health of their workers. However, despite copious legislation regarding health and safety in the workplace, the incidence of industrial injury remains unacceptably high. While pneumoconiosis and asbestosis may now be less of a concern, the threat to workers’ health continues. Not life-threatening, but certainly life-changing, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) has now become the most common form of industrial injury. Yet, with a suitable programme of hearing conservation, this too is preventable. Almost everyone will, at some time, have experienced the muffled sound that follows exposure to a sudden loud noise, such as a firework. Spend too long close to someone operating a jackhammer, and you will experience the same sensation. In each case, the deafness is likely to be just a temporary phenomenon lasting a day or two at most. However, if one should prolong and repeat that exposure, over time, the impairment will become irreversible.

Responsible for converting the mechanical vibrations produced by sound into nerve impulses that can be received and interpreted by the brain, without some suitable means of hearing conservation, the tiny hair cells that line the cochlea in the inner ear can become irreversibly damaged by prolonged and repeated exposure to loud noise. Since the body is unable to replace these damaged sensory cells, if such exposure is allowed to continue, it will result in a progressive loss of auditory function. In time, an affected worker will no longer be able to perform his or her duties, and there is every chance that the employer could be faced with the expense of an industrial injury claim.

While issuing the staff with earplugs would appear to be the obvious countermeasure, not all products are able to provide the degree of protection necessary for effective hearing conservation. One of the main reasons for this is that the shape of an over-the-counter product is most unlikely to conform sufficiently well to the contours of an individual’s ears. Instead, what will be required is a custom-made earplug designed to fit each ear precisely. Only such a product can ensure that there are no small gaps through which damaging noises may continue to leak. To achieve this, a mould of both the left and right ear of each worker must be taken and used to create a perfectly-fitting custom-made product.

A perfect fit alone, however, will not be enough to guarantee the success of your hearing conservation initiative. In order to perform their various tasks, employees will invariably need to communicate with co-workers and supervisors. That all-important perfect fit would, unfortunately, make it necessary for workers to remove their earplugs in order to do so, and thus re-expose themselves to the risk of NIHL. With the right product, however, sounds can be selectively filtered, so that the wearer will be able to communicate freely without the need to remove his or her earplugs. Filtering may be passive or active.

One vital component of any hearing conservation programme that should never be neglected is education. It is not enough to tell staff that they must wear their earplugs at all times whilst in the work area, they need to know why this is so important. Ideally, this would mean getting a professional to explain the mechanism of noise-induced hearing loss, and the long-term effects of even relatively short periods of exposure to excessively loud noises even at home and on the street.

To ensure its success, any scheme is likely to require some degree of oversight and, in the case of a hearing conservation programme, this will be especially important. Ideally, both the education and monitoring components of the programme would be best undertaken by a suitably qualified independent third party. A recognised leader in this important field, H.A.S.S. Industrial (Pty) Ltd, has been manufacturing and supplying state-of-the-art, custom-made protection for those at risk of NIHL to industries in South Africa for more than a quarter of a century. The service includes a noise assessment and the preparation of individual ear moulds, which includes the supply, fitting, leak-testing, and adjustment to the filtering of the custom-made Noise-Ban earplugs. The training of staff members and annual monitoring are also part of our comprehensive hearing conservation management programme.

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