Hearing loss in the workplace
Imagine, for a moment, that you must strain to hear your family members from across the room or co-workers from 20 feet away. Imagine that you must also wear a hearing aid to hear your grandchildren’s laughter.
Unfortunately, for many workers in construction, manufacturing and other industrial settings these situations are all too real. They suffer significant hearing loss after 15 to 20 years of being continuously subjected to noise from machinery, day-to-day activities, tools and traffic. Hearing loss has a dramatic impact on quality of life and also can pose safety problems both on and off the job.
Fortunately, hearing loss in industrial and construction settings is completely preventable through a combination of quieter equipment, mechanical noise absorbing covers and barriers, hearing conservation programmes, and lastly, the use of proper hearing protection.
Hearing protection products must be accurately selected in order to comply with legislation, to allow workers to stay in touch with their surroundings and communicate effectively with co-workers, when in areas where this is required.
There are different types of ear protection:
- Ear Muffs suppress unwanted noise by completely covering the outer ear.(image)
- Disposable Ear Plugs are made of formable material and are designed to be inserted into a person’s ear canal, where they expand and conform to the shape of each individual’s ear canal. (image)
- Reusable Ear Plugs usually are pre-moulded and made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are available in several different sizes. Workers sometimes refer to them as “Christmas tree plugs” because of their appearance. They often come in a carrying case to keep them clean when not in use
Custom moulded hearing protection is made from an actual mould of the individual staff members’ ears, are coloured red for right and blue for left and are used long term, and kept clean and in a special case.
The Importance of Ear Protection in the Workplace
The importance of effective ear protection has only been recognised in the last few decades, yet noise has steadily become the leading cause of premature hearing loss since the industrial revolution. We have all experienced a noisy environment at some time, even if we have never actually worked in one. A relatively brief exposure can leave one struggling to hear for a short while, quite apart from the feeling of confusion that may be experienced by some.
In the past, the employees who worked on a typical factory assembly line, surrounded by machines, would have claimed that they soon adjusted to the noise and that, after a while, they no longer noticed it. However, while the nose may adjust to the stench of an abattoir with no long-term effect on its sensory mechanism, the ear’s return to normal functionality can take a lot longer. Furthermore, when the exposure is prolonged and repeated, the malfunction is more likely to worsen and, in time, to become permanent – a consequence that is totally avoidable given adequate ear protection.
The question remains:
What does the law say about hearing loss and how should it be dealt with in the workplace?
The place to find this answer is Regulation 171 of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA)
Who needs hearing testing?
All employees working in an area where the noise levels is measured to be 85dB or more
These staff members need to have their first test or baseline test conducted within the first 30 days of starting in the noise environment, yes, this means casuals, contractors and managers, etc.
After the 30 day grace period, if the employee has any hearing loss, it is assumed that their hearing was normal at employment and the company becomes liable for follow up and compensation accordingly.
For this reason, that initial pre-employment or baseline test is the most important screening to be conducted!
Who may conduct the hearing tests?
An audiometrist that has completed a course accredited by the Department of Labour and registered with SASOHN (South African Society of Health Nurses)
Registration has to be kept up to date and a prudent safety officer or company will request a copy of this certification from their service provider.
The test procedure for Audios:
- Determines baseline hearing level at time of employment
- First hearing test employee ever has
- Consists of 2 tests, same day with levels within 10dB on each frequency per ear.
- 16 hours noise free prior to testing
- Within 30 days of employment, or assumed as 0%
- Is his baseline for life
- Measured in PLH (percentage loss of hearing)
- Single audiometric test
- Compared against baseline hearing
- Annual or six monthly
- Action taken with loss of 10% or more from baseline
- On termination of employment
- Copy of baseline and exit to be given to employee when they leave
- Baseline remains baseline even at new employer
How often are tests to be done?
Pre-employment, periodic, exit audio
Baseline within 30 days of employment
Annual 85 dB – 104 dB
Six monthly 105 dB + or shooting occupation (e.g. professional hunter, security guard, police, etc.)
What do different percentages mean?
Lowest possible PLH (Percentage Loss of Hearing) is 1.1%, so this is good or normal.
An employee can be referred for a COID claim for any loss from 10% shift from their baseline test.
Procedure for a COID claim is:
First needs to be referred to an Audiologist to confirm the PLH and a lot of other advanced tests and findings.
If the PLH is <29% the person is referred to an Occupational Health Medical Practitioner with a Diploma in Occupational Health.
If the PLH is >29% the employee is referred to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist (ENT)for assessment and completion of COID documentation.
So, remember that the onset of noise-related deafness is gradual.
If you experience these signs repeatedly or in combination, they may indicate a hearing loss:
- People seem to mumble more frequently.
- You have difficulty understanding speech in a noisy environment – like in a restaurant.
- You experience ringing in your ears – called tinnitus.
- You often ask people to repeat themselves.
- Your family complains that you set the radio or TV too loud.
- You no longer hear normal household sounds, such as the dripping of a tap, the ringing of a doorbell or the ‘beep’ of a microwave oven.
- You have difficulty understanding a conversation when in a large group or crowd.
- You can hear the other person speaking during a conversation, but have trouble understanding all the words.
- You find telephone conversations increasingly difficult.
- You have trouble hearing when your back is turned to the speaker.
- You have been told you speak too loudly or in some cases too softly.
Remember you’re the boss of your hearing loss!
For more information regarding hearing loss in the workplace or occupational health topics, kindly contact us
0861 873 477 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org