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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Shouting for attention

MIKE COSMAN asks whether we are turning a deaf ear to noise control.

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most significant areas of occupational ill health in New Zealand.

A Nohsac report said 17,687 new entitlement claims were made to ACC for industrial deafness between July 1994 and June 2003.

Currently over 35,000 people receive ACC assistance at a cost of nearly $70m/year (and rising); while the total cost to ACC of NIHL claims is estimated at $1.3 billion.

This is made up of $500 million for existing claims, along with an $806 million liability for future claims resulting from historic exposures.

In addition employers pay out a considerable amount each year on the provision of hearing protection and hearing tests and the public health system and charities pick up the bill for those not claiming through ACC.

Concerns about these ballooning costs have caused ACC to recently tighten the eligibility criteria for a NIHL claim (the 6% test). The DoL has meanwhile consulted on proposed new regulations under the ACC legislation to further limit costs by requiring a co-payment from the employee in proportion to the fraction of their total hearing loss that can be attributed to age or other factors.

Attribution of NIHL claims to particular employer levy groups can be problematic due to partial exposures occurring in many industries over many years, and it remains to be seen how the proposed re-introduction of experience rating will deal with this.

So given the well known causes of NIHL, the huge (and growing) financial cost, let alone the social isolation and other problems that deafness can lead to, are we winning the battle to control it?

In short I believe the answer is “No”. This is not to say that there isn’t a high awareness of the issue or that nothing is being done; but rather that the majority of our efforts are directed at minimisation (and treatment) rather than elimination or isolation as required by the hierarchy of control under the HSE Act.

Control of noise at source can be expensive, especially trying to retrofit controls to existing equipment and buildings, with all these costs falling on employers – many of whom are currently going through hard times. Meanwhile the ACC costs of NIHL are less obvious, spread more widely and over a longer period.

So from a purely financial perspective (and in the absence of enforcement) noise assessment, ear muffs, audiometry and signs appear to make sense at a workplace level.

Health records, such as audiograms, are paid for by the current employer and in most instances stay with them, or their occupational health provider, and do not get carried forward with the employee which would enable a progressive picture of their hearing health status to be built up.

As a result the value of that data is severely reduced and tests are sometimes repeated unnecessarily as employees change jobs. Alleged privacy concerns can mean that early signs of hearing degradation don’t get reported back to managers or OHS practitioners to help improve their hearing conservation programme.

So what about new machinery? Reg. 66 of the HSE Regulations 1995 imposes duties on manufacturers, designers and suppliers of plant to ensure that “there is no likelihood that the plant will be a cause of harm to any person”.

Noise is not specifically mentioned as one of the possible sources of harm and there are no mandatory standards referenced in the regulations, although the noise ACOP does refer to AS/NZS 1269.2:1998 Occupational noise management – Noise control management.

Good employers already specify performance standards when procuring new plant but an awful lot of equipment is still sold which does not meet this requirement.

Noise enclosures, silencers and other control equipment may be offered as an extra but in a price-sensitive market may often be seen as an unnecessary expense.

A quick scan of the web shows very few examples where the noise characteristics of new machinery are included in the technical information on display – although interestingly “low noise” is featured prominently as a sales feature for tractors. This may result from action in Europe, where independently certified quiet (Q) cabs (<80db) have been mandated for over 20 years.

ACC has been working with academics and industry for several years to try and develop and publicise practical solutions to some common noise problems and is renewing its focus on preventing NIHL by action at source.

A new ACC noise control booklet has recently been produced and is due to be published shortly to join a range of other free resources. Downloadable materials from the HSE and Worksafe Victoria are also very useful.

Even where noise levels can’t be reduced to “safe” levels at source it still makes sense to reduce the risk given that in many instances hearing protection is not worn correctly or all the time.

Measures such as noise refuges provide relief from noisy environments and limit exposure duration and can be used either as an interim measure or where it is impracticable to reduce noise at source. Similarly screens can at least limit exposure to the person doing the job and protect those around them.

The DoL has undertaken initiatives to look at noise exposure of workers including over 800 visits in 2006/07. One area of focus was the hospitality industry where the wearing of hearing protection may be very difficult to introduce.

This work has identified building design and fit out as key factors. They suggest measures such as acoustic screens between performance areas or dance floors and the bar; however it is unclear if action has been taken to implement them.

The DoL has committed to producing a national Occupational Health Action Plan for 2011-2013 by December 2010 which I hope will prominently feature NIHL

So whichever way you look at it NIHL is one of the most common and pernicious forms of occupational ill health and one we really need to tune into better. “I SAID NOISE IS A BIG PROBLEM!”

MIKE COSMAN is a chartered member of IOSH and managing director of Impac Services Ltd.

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