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Hearing Conservation Programme

The Importance of Adopting Hearing Conservation Measures in the Workplace

  The ability to hear is a gift that has a tendency to remain largely unappreciated until it is lost. Sadly, however, our modern lifestyles are such that more and more individuals have been finding themselves prematurely robbed of this priceless ability. While hearing loss may simply be the consequence of advancing years, it is no longer Father Time who is the principal thief, but excessively loud noise, particularly but not exclusively, in the workplace. Although there may be a practical limit to what can be done to promote hearing conservation measures in the outside world, within the workplace, there is now legislation in place that is designed to protect employees from the ill-effects of prolonged exposure to excessively loud noise. The regulation relating to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) included in the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993 was added in 2003, and it is applicable to both employers and self-employed individuals. Furthermore, those who may fail to comply with its provisions risk stiff financial penalties, as well as a possible custodial sentence. In addition, workers who may have been affected as a result of such negligence are in a position to claim compensation for their industrial injury. Adopting an effective hearing conservation programme (HCP), where this is deemed necessary, is therefore in the interest of both the employer and his or her employees.

How, then, does an employer establish whether there may be a need for such a programme? The starting point will be to arrange a professional risk assessment, which should be performed by a registered occupational health and safety officer. He or she will make measurements to determine whether or not the risk to workers posed by the current noise levels in the various working areas of the premises may be significant. Where a significant risk is confirmed, the employer is obliged under the current legislation to implement a suitable programme of hearing conservation.

It is reasonable to expect that such measures would have led to a marked downturn in the incidence of NIHL, but in fact, this has not been the case. This appears to be largely the result of two main factors. In many cases, the programmes in place focus on measurement, rather than monitoring and action, and are aimed more at compliance and the avoidance of compensation payments to employees. In other cases, it may be that the protective devices in use are simply not effective enough. The need is for more employers to embrace the spirit of the regulations and not simply comply with their text.

If it is to be effective, a hearing conservation programme will need to be multi-faceted. It should combine the control of noise levels through improved engineering with worker education and the enforced use of tried-and-tested hearing protection devices (HPDs). In addition, it should make provision for the ongoing monitoring of both ambient noise levels in the workplace and the auditory efficiency of all employees who are deemed to be at risk of NIHL.

Although each of these measures is important, selecting a sufficiently effective form of hearing protection and ensuring that workers understand why its use is important, along with audiometric testing at regular intervals, are undoubtedly the most crucial aspects of a hearing conservation programme. Of these, the effectiveness of the chosen device is paramount. It should be able to attenuate external noise sufficiently to limit the risk of NIHL, and at the same time, it should also allow the wearer to hear and to converse with supervisors and co-workers, without the need to remove it. While earmuffs may suffice in some instances, when they are custom-moulded, earplugs offer their users the ultimate form of protection, as their snug fit ensures that no external noise can bypass them.

Among the leaders in their field, H.A.S.S. Industrial offers South Africa’s employers all of the elements essential for an effective hearing conservation programme. Following the initial risk assessment, baseline audiograms are performed and, after making moulds of the left and right ears of each employee, the accurately-shaped earplugs are fitted, tested for leaks, and their attenuation adjusted, so as to block loud noise but not normal speech. The results of ongoing noise monitoring and repeat audiograms are collated into a comprehensive record. This provides a means for employers to determine that the measures in place are effective or to improve them if indicated, so that employees remain adequately protected by the hearing cons

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