Hearing health in dangerously noisy workplaces

Preventing noise-induced hearing loss is a priority for national action under the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 due to the severity of consequences and the estimated number of workers affected. Despite this, control measures to successfully reduce noise levels in many industries are failing, insufficient or non-existent.

Occupational hearing loss and deafness is completely preventable. It is a serious injury that has a profound impact on an individual’s quality of life.

It can impair a person’s ability to detect warning signals on the job and in everyday life, to comprehend speech, and to localise sound sources to gauge the direction or the distance of the sound. Many occupations such as firefighters require these skills. The occupational risk of hearing loss from continued exposure to noise is well established.

It is important to test a worker’s hearing at the commencement of their career (within three months of the worker commencing a role where hearing protection is required), to provide a baseline measurement as a reference for future audiometric test results. Once this is done, early identification of changes to hearing caused by noise is the most effective way of assessing the effectiveness of any control measure in place and in turn preventing hearing loss. Follow-up testing should occur every two years. Testing should occur well into the work shift so that any temporary hearing loss can be picked up. More frequent audiometric testing may be needed if exposures are equal to or greater than 100dB(A).

Unions NSW, Deafness Forum Australia and the Australian Workers Unions NSW Branch collaborated to highlight the need for active measures to prevent industrial hearing loss and to promote hearing health in the workplace.

The Australian Work Health and Safety Setting

The requirement for businesses to regularly test the hearing of workers exposed to high levels of noise has been in the Work Health and Safety Model Legislation since 2011.

The NSW Government initially gave businesses a two-year transition period in 2011 to prepare for audiometric testing to be put into place for workers at the commencement of jobs in high-noise environments. Since then, the government has placed a continuous exemption for businesses on this requirement. A decade later, we think it is time the exemption was ended.

You can read our joint submission to the NSW Government here.