Can You Hear Me Now?

Contributor: Scott Schneider, Chair of the Safe-in-Sound Expert Committee

Noise and hearing loss are major occupational safety and health problems in the US. You might not know it from the statistics though.

Why are noise and hearing loss still such large problems in the US?

Hearing loss is typically gradual and often not recognized for many years.

Some hearing loss is expected with aging and can also occur from other causes like non-occupational exposures.

Hearing loss is not always considered to be important – after all not many people die from hearing loss (though there are some indications that a noisy work environment can create safety problems and increase the likelihood of accidents). Occupational Safety and Health efforts tend to focus on hazards that kill workers (e.g., the Focus Four).

Workers often change jobs frequently (which is becoming more prevalent) like in construction, so employers may never see hearing loss as an issue or may feel like they are not to blame.

Court cases challenged the noise standard back in the 1970s and resulted in an inverted hierarchy of controls where employers were allowed to use hearing protection instead of noise controls at levels below 90 dB. The Hearing Conservation Amendment codified that in the 1980s, even though a recently published study showed there is still a high degree of non-use of hearing protectors in many industries.

The OSHA standard is outdated. NIOSH studies estimate that using the OSHA Permissible Exposure Level and exchange rates leaves as much as 25% of workers at excess risk of acquiring noise-induced hearing loss. The US is one of a handful of countries in the world that still allows exposures to 90 dBA over an 8-hour day and uses a 5-dB doubling rate (e.g., twice as much exposure is allowed by reducing exposures 5 dB) even though studies have shown a 3-dB doubling rate is much more protective.

Hearing loss is often underreported. In 2020, for example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics logged just 11,200 cases of recordable hearing loss in the US.

Noise has been often perceived as a “stepchild” among occupational safety and health hazards. How do we change that? How can we make it a priority so workers won’t have to live struggling to hear conversations or trying to cope with constant tinnitus? Back in 2008, NIOSH established the Safe-in-Sound award to honor the efforts of great employers who take noise issues seriously and have gone above and beyond in controlling noise exposures and protecting workers. Many VPPPA employers are undoubtedly doing so and we would like to recognize their efforts.

Safe-in-Sound Awards

If you or your employer are making extra efforts to prevent hearing loss, you might be eligible for the award. Established by NIOSH in 2008—and now co-sponsored by NHCA and CAOHC—this annual award recognizes companies and individuals who have demonstrated excellence in hearing loss prevention. Two awards exist: one for excellence and one for innovation.

Judges evaluate candidates for the excellence award based on what they have done to protect noise-exposed workers. For example, have they considered noise levels in purchasing equipment or tools (perhaps as part of a Buy Quiet program)? Do they regularly check noise levels in the workplace? Where needed, do they provide effective hearing protection that is fit-tested and individually tailored to the workers’ needs? Do they provide annual hearing tests for workers? Have they trained all workers effectively on noise both on and off the job? Safe-in-Sound judges also consider whether award nominees are controlling exposures to the minimum requirements for compliance with federal regulations (that is, OSHA standards) or to more protective levels, such as those recommended by NIOSH. Are they evaluating their program and improving it each year where deficiencies are found? Nominees for the excellence award should employ a comprehensive approach to hearing loss prevention that goes above and beyond.

For the innovation award, Safe-in-Sound judges look for important contributions that will have a significant impact on hearing loss prevention. Such advances can include policy development, program development and implementation, advocacy and outreach efforts, and unique product applications and their effectiveness.

The deadline for nominations for the 2023 award has just been extended to August 15, 2022. Please look at our website for more information including handy tips for a strong application. The website includes detailed and inspirational testimonials from past winners as well.