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June 29, 2010
Practical Tips for Designing an Effective Hearing Protection Program

When US Airways merged with America West in 2005 to create what is now the country's sixth-largest airline, the new organization faced a number of integration challenges. One of those was how to combine safety programs, including the hearing conservation program, across the new company. US Airlines teamed with hearing protection manufacturer Howard Leight to put a unified hearing conservation program in place. The two organizations published a white paper based on their experience creating a unified program that details best practices for employers creating or merging hearing conservation programs.

Best Practices in Hearing Protection

To create an effective hearing conservation program, US Airways made sure to:

  • Let users evaluate hearing protection devices. One of the greatest obstacles to effectiveness in any personal protective equipment program is worker noncompliance—workers may simply refuse to use the personal protective devices. To overcome this, it's best to involve users of the devices from the very beginning of the selection process.

At US Airways, a committee charged with selecting hearing protection devices gave the equipment under consideration to workers in different departments and geographic locations, with different types and levels of noise exposure. The workers used each product for one full shift. Afterward, the workers completed an evaluation form assessing comfort, usability, and protection. The committee used the evaluation form information to select hearing protection devices with a good potential for acceptance.

Other employers have used this strategy, too, when selecting different safety devices. For example, federal OSHA evaluation forms are available for employers to use in choosing sharps safety devices for preventing needle sticks, and Cal/OSHA's respiratory protection standard requires employers to account for fit and employee comfort when selecting respirators.

  • Enroll all workers. Regulatory standards only require workers who are exposed to noise levels above 85 decibels as a time-weighted average to participate in hearing conservation programs. But US Airways enrolls all workers with any noise exposure in the hearing conservation program and provides them with audiometric testing. According to US Airways, this improves both safety awareness throughout the company and the overall effectiveness of the hearing conservation program.

  • Provide one-on-one training. US Airways workers bring their hearing protection devices to their annual audiometric testing session. The trained hearing conservation specialist observes the workers donning their hearing protection and corrects any problems on the spot, either by instructing the worker on the proper technique or providing new or different hearing protection.

  • Invest in equipment. At one time, US Airways performed its audiometric testing using mobile equipment. However, completing testing on all workers in this way proved to be difficult and disruptive to normal work schedules. By purchasing audiometric test booths and equipment for larger worksites and portable equipment for smaller ones, and by training members of its own staff to perform testing, the company can better reconcile the need for audiometric testing with the need to get work done.

  • Incorporate workers in instructional materials. The airline developed a training video internally that uses actual US Airways personnel and created instructional posters and other materials using images of actual employees. After using its own workers in this way, the airline's employee acceptance and proper use of hearing protection and other personal protective equipment increased significantly.

Earbuds: No Friend to Your Workers' Hearing

High-volume MP3 players are becoming common accessories for many workers. These music players, with their earbuds that fit in the ear itself, can boost the sound signal by six to nine decibels. Cal/OSHA considers workplace noise to be "excessive" if employees are exposed to noise levels of 85 decibels or higher over an eight-hour period. Yet researchers have found that young people often listen to their favorite music at 110 to 120 decibels.

It can be difficult to convince your workforce of the dangers of working while listening to high-volume music. Noise-induced hearing loss is less dramatic than other injuries. But make sure workers know that:

  • It's irreversible.
  • It usually affects both ears.
  • It can happen to anyone at any age.
  • Symptoms may be temporary, but damage is permanent.
  • If their music is loud enough to drown out workplace noise, it may also prevent them from hearing workplace warning sirens.
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