Testing 1, 2, 3: Help protect workers’ hearing

OSHA now tracking hearing loss

According to the Arlington Heights, IL-based American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), hearing loss affects more than 28 million Americans, and the number is rising. Often, hearing loss is gradual; its effects are cumulative and the loss cannot be regained. OSHA has taken steps to more closely monitor occupational hearing loss, and ACOEM has created a checklist to help employers and occupational health practitioners protect workers’ hearing. (See table.)

Noisy workplaces have been required to monitor employees’ hearing when they are exposed to hazardous noise levels since the creation of OSHA in 1970. Exposed workers must be given a yearly hearing test, and work-related losses documented. As of Jan. 1, any decrease in hearing of 10 decibels or more from an employee’s previous level is required to be recorded. The rules require that the affected employee be referred for appropriate medical evaluation, as needed. The previous criteria stated that employers would record hearing loss only after employees were exposed to levels of 26 decibels (dB) or more during a shift.

Employers, when recording hearing loss on the revised OSHA 300 form, which includes a column specifically for recording of hearing loss, are permitted to make adjustments for hearing loss due to age. If an employee’s audiogram, or hearing test, shows a standard threshold shift (STS) in hearing in one or both ears, and the employee’s total hearing level is 25 dB or more above audiometric zero (averaged at 2000, 3000, and 4000 Hz) in the same ear(s) as the STS, the patient’s case must be recorded on the OSHA 300 log.

OSHA administrators say data collected on the new log will improve knowledge of the extent of occupational hearing loss, and will help prioritize hearing loss prevention efforts.

"Hearing loss can result in serious disability and put employees at risk of being injured on the job," according to a statement from OSHA administrator John Henshaw. "This approach will help employers better protect their workers and help all of us improve our national injury and illness statistics and prevent future hearing loss among our nation’s workers."

According to ACOEM, OSHA in 2001 issued 1,146 citations to companies that failed to adhere to rules on hearing protection. In 2001, OSHA issued 1,146 citations to American companies for failure to live up to the rules on hearing protection. In total, the proposed fines and penalties reached $611,000.

ACOEM has developed tips for monitoring hearing loss in the workplace as well as suggestions for protecting hearing at noisy work sites, at its web site (www.acoem.org). Among the tips offered by ACOEM are to report overly noisy equipment or locations to a manager; provide employees with a quiet, restful spot in which to take breaks, and assess how well an employer’s hearing conservation program is working.