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Are you hearing the needs of your workforce?

29 April 2013

Andrew Goodwin explains why hearing screenings are so important for businesses with a duty of care to employees, and why Deafness Research UK has never been busier in providing this essential service

Andrew Goodwin explains why hearing screenings are so important for businesses with a duty of care to employees, and why Deafness Research UK has never been busier in providing this essential service

When I tell people that I travel around the country conducting hearing screenings for national charity Deafness Research UK and trying to prevent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) in the workplace, I usually have some explaining to do.

What surprises me is how noise at work is thought of as a historical problem.

People have this image in their minds of deafening 19th century factories, somewhere in the north of England at the height of the industrial revolution.

Yet the fact is NIHL is still very much with us, which is why hearing screenings with the Bionic Ear Show from Deafness Research UK continue to prove so important.

Another surprise for many is when I explain that The Control of Noise at Work Regulations only passed into law eight years ago as part of the Health and Safety at Work Act. These additional regulations were needed to combat NIHL in the workplace and the corresponding rise in the number of claims for disablement benefit in connection with it.

The charity's own statistics, coupled with figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) all demonstrate that our efforts to combat the causes of hearing loss through education are more relevant than ever.

As recently as 2011, some 150 new claims for NIHL disablement benefit were assessed and a study by the Labour Force Survey on behalf of the ONS shows that in the last couple of years the average number of cases of NIHL caused or made worse by noise in the workplace stood at 19,000 - a staggering and quite alarming figure for a supposedly low priority or 'historical' problem.

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations demand that all staff working in an environment with an average noise level of over 85db must be given hearing protection. It is also the responsibility of the employer to continually check and make sure that staff are wearing the hearing protection provided and offer regular hearing checks - and this is where Deafness Research UK comes in. The industries with the largest number of new cases are manufacturing, construction and extraction, energy and water supply.

But the feedback we have received is that we really do have a lot of success in getting the health messages across.

Our own figures from hearing screening visits to businesses across the UK are telling. At least 20% of staff we have screened needed to be referred to a GP for a more in-depth hearing test and/or other medical treatment. On some occasions, this number has been as high as 45%.

Ear health education Part of our role is to advise not only on the importance of wearing good ear protection, but to educate staff on general ear health too. So we cover why ear protection is important (and what happens to your hearing if you ignore it), while explaining why you should never use cotton buds and the importance of keeping the ears clear of dirt and grease.

In a factory we visited last year, ear infections were rife, whilst at the same time reports of hearing loss were falling.

The employer was very responsible and insisted staff were trained and were wearing the appropriate hearing protection. However, the correct way to use ear plugs was not covered, as it was assumed to be obvious. In this particular factory, many jobs involved a lot of dirt and grease and people were not cleaning their hands before putting in the ear plugs, so while their ears were protected from noise, ear hygiene was poor.

A quick masterclass was all it took for staff to be better informed about the need for and types of hearing protection and correct hygiene procedures before using them. For some, ear mufflers became a better option, while for others, safe, hygienic ways of using ear plugs were all that was required (like getting a fresh pair each time you enter the factory, rather than using the same dirty pair you have kept for months in your pocket) to deliver a happier and now infection-free workforce.

This year we have visited more workplaces than ever to get the hearing health message across. Whether you want to opt for our full, interactive Bionic Ear Show presentation, or hearing screenings alone, it is completely free - and an effortless way for those charged with making decisions on health and safety to demonstrate they take their duty of care in this regard seriously.

Andrew Goodwin is outreach advisor for Deafness Research UK For further information visit the Deafness Research UK team at Health & Safety South on Stand 24