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Hearing Conservation Programme

The Importance of implementing a Comprehensive Hearing Conservation Programme

It will probably be a shock to most people to learn that approximately 466 million people around the world are affected by hearing loss to an extent that is considered disabling. This works out to about 5% of the population or one out of every 20 people on the planet. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation estimates that the figure could rise to over 900 million by 2050. More disturbing than these figures, however, is the fact that more than half can be attributed to causes that are preventable with either improved healthcare or a hearing conservation programme.

In many of the world’s impoverished communities, the incidence of deafness is the result of childhood ear infections that have gone undetected or untreated, and is less prevalent in developed countries. Nevertheless, hearing impairment is a worldwide problem and in industrialised countries, one of the greatest threats to audition is to be found in the workplace. More specifically, the threat is noise.

Although a threat since the invention of gunpowder and more widespread since the industrial revolution, NIHL or noise-induced hearing loss has only been acknowledged for around four decades, but is now recognised as the most common cause of deafness. Legislation to protect workers at risk is now in place in most countries, but without a comprehensive hearing conservation programme, simply issuing workers with ear defenders or earplugs in compliance with health and safety requirements could leave many of them at risk.

Firstly, the quality of ear protection offered is crucially important. It should be personalised to fit the ears of each individual employee and act to attenuate all noise of a dangerous level, whilst still permitting the wearer to hear more moderate sounds, such as speech. Secondly, it needs to be emphasised that this is a measure designed to protect both employees and employers. NIHL is now the most common industrial injury and a major source of claims for workers’ compensation payments. One of the major benefits of implementing a formal hearing conservation programme is that each employee will undergo an initial hearing test that may be used as a baseline for future comparison.

While it is obviously important to provide effective protection, it is equally important to ensure that every member of the workforce who may be at risk makes use of that protection at all times. The best way to achieve this is by ensuring that everyone is fully aware of the nature and potential consequences of noise-induced hearing loss, and the risk they face when failing to use the protection provided as prescribed. One cannot overemphasise the importance of education as a component of health and safety, so for any hearing conservation programme to be effective, it will be essential to include some relevant worker education along with the baseline hearing test.

As mentioned earlier, it is important for hearing protection to be personalised and there is little doubt that earplugs, specifically moulded to match the contours of both the right and left ears of the wearers, are the most effective option. A good hearing conservation programme will acknowledge this, and once the initial risk assessment of the workplace environment has been completed, preparing casts of the ears of each worker will be the first step in the manufacture of the personalised earplugs. The casts are used to form the moulds from which the final product can then be formed.

To ensure that perfect fit, an acoustic leak test should be conducted with the newly-completed plugs in situ. If the result is satisfactory, the next step will be to adjust the level of attenuation, so that it provides adequate protection from loud noise, while still permitting the wearer to converse effectively with his or her co-workers and supervisors.

At this point, the hearing conservation programme has equipped workers with the necessary protection and the knowledge of how and why to use it, and the employer has been made aware of the role of management in ensuring its use and provided with a baseline value for each employee’s auditory efficiency. However, if a company is to ensure that these measures are working as they should, a system of ongoing monitoring will be necessary.

Monitoring should involve further environmental testing to check that noise levels remain controlled, as well as repeat audiograms to confirm that the protection is still adequate, while revealing anyone who may not be using it consistently. Continued monitoring is a cornerstone of any effective hearing conservation programme.

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