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When a company has an effective hearing loss prevention program, everyone wins-the employers, the employees, and the safety and health professionals who implement the program. This guidebook is not about minimal programs that meet only the letter of the law. It is concerned with programs that are effective as well as efficient: those optimizing program elements that succeed in preventing hearing loss in a practical and cost-effective manner.

Employer Benefits

Hearing loss prevention programs are the law in that they are required by federal and state occupational safety and health agencies. Companies that do not comply with appropriate regulations are liable for citations and fines. Most employee compensation insurance carriers also advocate hearing loss prevention programs, and companies that do not protect their employees from hearing loss may find their premiums increasing. Aside from the legal and economic factors, conscientious employers will want to protect their employees from an unnecessary loss of hearing. Today, there is no reason why hearing impairment needs to be the outcome of a noisy job.

A good hearing loss prevention program is good business. It promotes good labor relations because employees know that management is concerned, and this type of concern may translate to improved productivity and product quality. Indeed, noise itself can have an adverse effect on productivity. For complex jobs and those requiring concentration, studies show that greater efficiency is linked to lower noise levels. Also, the ease and accuracy of communication is improved as noise levels are lowered. These benefits should prove to be cost-effective for management. Additionally, the conservation of hearing leads to the conservation of valuable employee resources. Studies of noisy companies that have implemented hearing loss prevention programs show reductions in accident rates, illnesses, and lost time. Versatility, adaptability, and promotability of employees are likely to be maintained when employees retain good hearing. Finally, morale may also benefit, which should lead to greater employee satisfaction and retention.

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Hearing Conservation Amendment became effective in 1983, some employers were concerned about the possibility of a flood of claims for occupational hearing loss. However, no such flood has occurred, at least on a national scale. Of course, employers who take the appropriate preventive action now will greatly reduce the risk of future claims.

As with other effective health and safety measures, hearing loss prevention programs should also extend beyond the workplace. The company that encourages employees to take their earplugs home to wear during woodworking, target practice, or other noisy off-job activities is reducing the possibility of spurious work related claims, as well as educating the employees to the need for hearing loss prevention in recreational settings.

Finally, the company that places a high value on safety and health maintenance should evaluate the performance of managers responsible for hearing loss prevention programs and reward those whose programs succeed in preventing hearing loss. An effective hearing loss prevention program costs money to implement, but the necessary investment will produce a beneficial return.

Employee Benefits

The hearing loss prevention program's most obvious benefit to employees is that it saves their hearing and ability to communicate. Because occupational hearing loss creeps up slowly, many individuals are unaware of their impairment until it is too late. Moreover, occupational hearing loss represents permanent damage, i.e., it cannot be restored through medical/surgical treatment. A good hearing loss prevention program, however, can identify minor changes in hearing, and prevent deterioration to the point where it is permanent. Employees who have labored for 35 or 40 years deserve to enjoy their retirement; they should be able to socialize with family and friends, and listen to music and the sounds of nature. Hearing loss due to noise appears during the first five to ten years of exposure, so young workers are at most risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Preventing hearing loss for them benefits employees all through life, not just in retirement, since the ability to communicate is critical in all of our interpersonal relationships. When good hearing is a prerequisite for a job, an effective hearing loss prevention program will enable employees to sustain their hearing ability and thus continue to qualify for jobs (perhaps higher level) that have such requirements.

An additional benefit of an occupational hearing loss prevention program is that it can detect hearing loss that may be due to causes other than workplace noise exposure. Some individuals may suffer hearing loss due to impacted earwax, an ear infection, or possibly a more serious disease. Audiometric tests can help identify these non-noise related problems, and employees can be referred for the necessary medical attention. Therefore, prevention programs promote and contribute to concepts of overall hearing health as part of health-maintenance programs.

Another benefit reported by employees in companies with effective hearing loss prevention programs is that they generally feel better; less tired and irritable. They sometimes report that they sleep better at night, and they are no longer bothered by temporary reductions in hearing ability at the end of the day, or by the tinnitus (ringing in the ears) that often accompanies the development of noise-induced hearing loss. There is also evidence that long term noise exposure may contribute to stress-related disease, especially cardiovascular disease. By reducing noise, the chances of other health impairments are consequently controlled and reduced.

Noise reduction and maintenance of hearing sensitivity can benefit safety because employees are better able to communicate, and to hear alarms and warning shouts. Good hearing is essential for more subtle warning signals, such as a malfunctioning machine or the sounds of "roof-talk" in underground mines.

In summary, a good hearing loss prevention program is consistent with good health and good business. At a minimum, employees benefit with good hearing. Reductions in noise exposure may also result in less fatigue and irritation, and possibly fewer stress-related health complaints. The company benefits from reduced worker compensation payments and medical expenses, and a reduced likelihood of an OSHA citation for hearing conservation violations. Reduced noise exposures also can be associated with improved employee morale, and, in some cases, higher production efficiency.

Further Reading

Henderson D [1985]. Effects of noise on hearing. In: Feldman AS, Grimes CT, eds. Hearing Conservation in Industry. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, Chapter 2.

OSHA [1981]. Occupational Noise Exposure; Hearing Conservation Amendment. Federal Register, 46, pp. 4078-4102 and 4105-4117.

Rossi G, ed. [1978] Noise as Public Health Problem: Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress. Milan, Italy, Centro Richerche e Studi Amplifon.

Suter AH [1988]. The development of federal standards and damage risk criteria. In: Lipscomb DM, ed. Hearing Conservation in Industry, Schools, and the Military. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., Chapter 5.

Suter AH Hearing Conservation. In: Berger, EH, Ward WD, Morrill, JC, Royster LH eds. Noise and Hearing Conservation Manual. 4th ed. Akron, OH: American Industrial Hygiene Assoc., Chapter 1.

Vallet M ed. [1993] Noise as a Public Health Hazard: Proceedings of the 6th International Congress. Nice, France: Institut National de Recherche Sur le Transports et Luer SÚcuritÚ

Ward WD [1973]. Proceedings of the International Congress on Noise as Public Health Problem. EPA Report No. 550/9-73-008. Washington, D.C. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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