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The OSHA standard is outdated.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. 

Jacqueline "Jackie" Annis is an industrial hygienist with the Office of Partnerships and Recognition, Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs in OSHA’s National Office.  Jackie’s primary responsibilities include developing and overseeing internal policies and procedures for the VPP, reviewing VPP on-site evaluation reports for process safety management information, serving as the National Office liaison for two of OSHA’s ten Regions, and facilitating the management of OSHA’s National Strategic Partnership Program.  She is an integral part of OSHA’s National Office team. 

She has served with the Agency for 36 years, including five years as a senior industrial hygienist in OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement, Directorate of Enforcement Programs in the National Office and 17 years as a compliance safety and health officer in the Denver, CO Area Office.  Prior to her tenure at OSHA, Jackie worked as an industrial hygienist for the Department of the Navy in Alameda, California.  Jackie obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 1983.

Wayne Howard earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis and has spent 12 years with Shell (at Martinez) refinery, 3 years with the consulting firm Process Safety, 15 years with Valero (at Benicia), and the last 10 years in the Corporate Process Safety Department. He is the Valero representative to AFPM's Advancing Process Safety Initiative.

Nathan Obaugh, PE is a senior engineer in the Safety and Operational Excellence Group at NuStar Energy. Nathan has over 10 years of PSM and process design experience in the petrochemical, refining and midstream industries. At NuStar, Nathan oversees all elements of the corporate PSM program and works directly on hazard analysis, process safety studies, PSM/RMP audits and provides process engineering support to the operations and capital projects groups.

Jared Teter, PhD is a senior staff scientist with a background in physics and hazards analysis. He has extensive experience in subscale testing of energetic materials and has served as program manager for several large testing and risk management projects. He has applied engineering and risk management protocols while evaluating the risk associated with propellant and explosives manufacturing, combustible dust, and other hazardous material related processes.

Tim Belitz has a degree in Environmental Health/Industrial Hygiene from Old Dominion University and a Master’s from Duke University. He has over 25 years of Industrial Health Safety and Environmental Experience and is a Certified Safety Professional. He has many years focused on Contractor Management and Process Safety programs.

Rob Walker graduated from Virginia Tech in Microbiology and Chemical Engineering. Rob has almost 35 years of experience working in the chemical plant and refining industry. His passion for Process Safety and Mechanical Integrity began very early in his career. Rob began with his current company, Honeywell, back in 2011.

Prasad Joshi has B.S. and M.S. Degrees in Chemical Engineering from two universities in India. Prasad has over 30 years’ experience in the business. He began with Honeywell in May 2022 as Principal Maintenance Engineer. He has worked internationally in Asia and Europe.