Audiometric screening: When to do it and why?

There are a range of industries in South Africa where the workforce is subjected to physical conditions that may negatively impact their senses and their bodies. Bright lights from welding, high noise levels from blasting, jackhammers, and other heavy machinery; and forces that produce a high impact on the joints and muscles can have long-term negative effects on the human body. These industries – which include mining, construction, manufacturing, and processing – have special occupational health and safety regulations in place to protect employees in their harsh work environments.

What is audiometric screening?
In order to stay in peak working condition, employees should undergo physical testing at specified intervals to ensure that they are physically fit enough to continue working. One of those tests is audiometric screening, which ensures that employees aren’t suffering from any occupational hearing loss and can continue to perform their work safely. Audiometric screening is performed on employees who are regularly exposed to noise levels of 85dB and higher in their workplace, to determine whether they are suffering from any progressive hearing loss.

When is audiometric screening performed?
In the first six months of employment, employees need to have a baseline audiogram to determine their hearing health. All subsequent audiograms will be compared to the baseline results to determine whether employees are properly protected against hearing loss, or whether their hearing is deteriorating. Employees should be tested at least once per year to ensure their optimal hearing health, and to counteract any negative effects of exposure to high noise levels.

Why is audiometric screening performed?
Employees who are suffering from gradual hearing loss due to exposure to high noise levels at work may not be aware that they cannot hear as well as they used to. They may also hide this fact because of the fear of job loss, while they may also be putting themselves and their colleagues in danger if they cannot hear properly. Audiometric screening is performed to ensure the ongoing occupational health of employees, but to also decide a course of treatment and action if employees’ hearing is found to be deteriorating.

What can employers do to improve conditions?
Depending on the results of audiometric screening over a certain period of time, employers may decide to improve the personal protective equipment (PPE) supplied for employees’ wellbeing – especially their hearing protection – and implement other steps towards an effective noise management programme. Employers can also improve training programmes so that employees are better protected in high-noise areas; or they can change work shifts so that fewer employees are affected by high noise levels.