Managing a hearing conservation program and OSHA audiometric testing can be difficult. The OSHA Standard on Occupational Noise Exposure is your guide, but sometimes you have questions outside the standard. Every program and every employee is different so you may have questions that come up during the course of your industrial hearing testing.

Make sure you partner with an audiometric testing company that not only can perform mobile hearing testing but has the resources and audiologists to help with all your questions and concerns. We asked our audiologists to describe some of the common questions that our clients have asked them. Read on to learn more about some common questions and issues around hearing conservation.

What is the difference between the different types of hearing protection? 

Hearing protection comes in various shapes, sizes and even colors. While they serve the same ultimate purpose, the best types of hearing protection are different for each employee. The working environment noise exposure, type of work performed, critical tasks, convenience and comfort are all variables to evaluate when selecting hearing protection for each employee. Types of hearing protection:

Earmuffs - These protective devices are exceptional for protecting hearing. Earmuffs are easily able to put on and take off, and are reusable for over a sustained time.

Foam earplugs – Comfortable and convenient, these inexpensive devices provide excellent protection when worn consistently and correctly. For those with eye protection, foam earplugs are a good option.

Push-in and premolded earplugs– Similar to earmuffs, push-ins are reusable and convenient for the wearer. They are easy to insert and take out of the ears.

How can hearing loss be work-related if my employees are wearing hearing protection? 

The effectiveness of hearing protection is based on several factors:
• Is it being worn correctly?
• Is it being worn consistently while in noise?
• Is the selected HPD the most appropriate for:
      -The noise levels to which each employee is exposed?
      -The listening need of the employee in his/her specific job?

It’s also important to remember that the hearing test given at work will capture the effects of hearing events both on and off the job. Illness, fatigue and non-occupational noise can all have an adverse effect on a hearing test. That’s why it is important to retest the employee after his/her ears have had an opportunity to rest from noise to determine if the hearing shift is temporary or persistent. If confirmed by retest or shown to be persistent, then the task is to determine to what extent – if any - workplace noise contributed to the hearing shift.

Once noise-induced hearing loss occurs, can it be healed? What can I do to fix it? 

Once hearing has been damaged by noise, it cannot be restored to its original state. While this is unfortunate, there are ways to manage your hearing to prevent further harm. Your goal should be to prevent noise-induced hearing loss in your workforce. This requires employee training and motivation along with reducing the effects of noise whenever possible both at work and at home.

While hearing protection for your employees is a must, it should be your last line of defense. In the workplace, OSHA requires employers to measure and evaluate the workplace noise levels to determine whether or not the noise levels can be reduced or eliminated by engineering controls such as sound baffling; enclosures for machines or workers, etc. If this fails to reduce the noise levels below 90dBA, hearing protection use is required.

Persons with noise-induced hearing loss may be helped by hearing aids (see bonus question), but this will not be able to restore normal hearing. Hearing loss prevention is the goal.

Am I required to record an employee on my OSHA 300 log when the employee has a history of several non-occupational noise exposures? 

Exposure to non-occupational noise does not invalidate any workplace noise exposure that may occur. Each case needs evaluation based on evidence. Workplace noise does not need to be the sole cause of any hearing shift. It only needs to be a contributor. It’s important to utilize a PLHCP that is well versed in the OSHA regulations and can analyze the expected effects of noise on hearing-based, on-risk factors such as age, years of exposure and level of exposure along with evidence of any medical or non-occupational considerations. 

How can I strengthen my hearing conservation program?  

The key is to focus on year-round training, not just testing day. The success of everything you do in a hearing conservation program hinges on your employees' understanding the importance of their hearing protection. OSHA requires annual training on the effects of noise, the benefits and proper use of hearing protection and the purpose of the annual hearing test. While this training meets the compliance obligation, it will likely require more to motivate your employees to preserve their hearing.

As an employer, it’s also vital you understand the workspace of your employees. What are the noise levels? Never underestimate the value of noise data. This allows you to accurately identify which employee’s noise exposure meets the 85 dBA action level and should be included in the hearing conservation program. Ultimately, noise data gives you the ability to evaluate feasible noise controls or administrative controls for any noise exposures equal to or greater than 90 dBA.

Engineering controls eliminate the noise or reduce it to a non-hazardous level. Although engineering noise control may be costly, they are likely to return high dividends through reduced need for hearing protection. For example, some benefits include fewer employees in your hearing conservation program, better hearing health and better general health for your employees.

What about my employees who use hearing aids? How do I handle them in my hearing conservation program? 

Employees with hearing aids, just like any other employee, need protection from noise exposure. These employees are still susceptible to additional hearing loss. The use of hearing aids – whether turned off or on – does not provide protection itself. It’s highly encouraged that employees remove their hearing aids and utilize the hearing protection before work. However, there are options for specialized hearing protectors that can provide limited amplification that stops at a safe level that may also be a good solution for these employees. You can find more information in OSHA’s Safety and Health Information Bulletin “Hearing Conservation for the Hearing-Impaired Worker."