It All Begins with a Baseline Audiogram

Every day, workers everywhere are exposed to noise during their workday that may be loud enough – or occasionally loud enough – to be damaging to their hearing. Without adequate protection and procedures, long-term damage can occur. This is why workplace safety, and hearing conservation programs, are essential for the long-term health and well-being of our working men and women.

The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers must incorporate a hearing conservation program when workers are exposed to noise levels that average 85dB over an 8-hour workday. 85dB sounds like a diesel truck, a snow blower, or a milling machine. 90dB sounds like a power mower, an arc welder, or a newspaper press. And 100dB – which is damaging to human hearing when exposure last for prolonged periods to time - is equivalent to the sound of a jet taking off, a farm tractor, or a jackhammer. None of these are uncommon sounds for many average working Americans.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that "four million workers go to work each day in damaging noise conditions. Ten million people in the U.S. have a noise-related hearing loss. Twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year."

In order to maintain compliance with OSHA guidelines related to occupational hearing conservation programs, those employees whose work environment exposes them 85dB of noise over that 8-hour work shift are required to undergo a hearing test for the purpose of producing a baseline audiogram. This test is provided by the employer and must be done within the first 6 months of employment. Sooner would be better.

So, what is a baseline audiogram?

A baseline audiogram is intended to provide a reference point for future audiometric tests. This is the audiogram against which future audiograms are compared, making it possible to determine if an employee's hearing has changed since that initial hearing test was performed. This baseline may determine that the employee joined the organization with mild, moderate, or even severe hearing loss. The initial level of hearing is not the goal of obtaining a baseline test, and employees should not be concerned with where their hearing threshold levels lie. It's the comparative results over time that are imperative to monitor in a hearing conservation program. As such, establishing that baseline as close to the first date of employment is imperative. If that initial baseline does in fact indicate some hearing loss and it was only performed six months after the employees start date, is that loss the result of noise in the workplace or did the employee join your company with that level of hearing? This could be difficult to determine.

The periodic/annual audiogram

With a baseline audiogram now on file, the employees move into an annual cycle of hearing testing. The ongoing hearing test results are then compared against the identified ear-specific baselines, allowing the employer to take appropriate measures if a shift in hearing is detected. These changes are recorded as a Standard Threshold Shift (STS).

Standard Threshold Shift

A Standard Threshold Shift is a detectable change in hearing as compared to the baseline audiogram. The American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a change as an average shift of 10dB or more at 2000, 3000, and 4000 Hz in either ear. If a shift is identified, follow-up actions are required by both the employer and employee. The employer is obligated to inform the employee within 21 days of the determination of a hearing shift and refer them to an audiologist for follow-up testing and possibly treatment. Employees – who should already be wearing proper hearing protection – may require another work environment noise assessment and/or updated hearing protection recommendations. Additionally, this may be a good opportunity to revisit the proper insertion and placement of various hearing protectors.

Implementing and managing an occupational hearing conservation program is not a simple task. If you administer the program yourself in-house or outsource it to a trusted service provider, the process can be time-consuming. And whether you have ten or 10,000 employees, the simple task of scheduling annual tests can turn into a full-time job. Sending employees off-site to be tested or employing trucks to bring testing to your employees can be an expensive endeavor. This is where the right mobile system with integrated paperless data management can help you automate much of the program workflow.

Today, tablet audiometry is changing how many administer their hearing conservation programs. Easy-to-use, lightweight and portable systems with integrated noise monitoring capabilities can produce accurate results even when testing is done outside of a sound booth. Best of all, they can be used to more easily flag baseline shift detections, taking away any guesswork. Cloud-based web portals for accessing, managing, analyzing, and reporting employee data in an online environment is helping more companies move to a paperless solution.

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