Dunn Lecturer Shares Advice for Lowering Noise Exposure, Measuring Return on Investment

By Ed Rutkowski

Minneapolis Convention Center (May 21, 2019)—Dennis Driscoll, a noise prevention and hearing conservation specialist, discussed practical ways to lower occupational noise exposure and quantify the benefits of hearing conservation and prevention programs during the Derek E. Dunn Noise Lecture yesterday at AIHce EXP 2019. Sponsored by AIHA’s Noise Committee, the Dunn Lecture is an annual address that honors the memory of NIOSH noise researcher Derek Dunn, a seminal figure in noise and hearing loss prevention who authored many peer-reviewed scientific publications.

“Noise is clearly one of the more prevalent occupational challenges in the workplace,” Driscoll told attendees, citing NIOSH estimates that more than 30 million workers in the United States are exposed to hazardous noise. “Its effects are insidious, gradual, and occur over long periods of time.” Part of what makes noise so difficult to address is that workers often aren’t aware they are at risk until their ears have suffered significant, irreversible damage. Workers also often have the misconception that hearing aids will sufficiently address any loss in hearing. “All hearing aids are doing is amplifying [noise],” Driscoll said. Mere amplification will not help an individual who has sustained significant damage to the fragile hairs of the cochlea.

Having worked as a consultant since 1988, Driscoll has extensive experience trying to persuade company management to increase hearing protections for their workers and reduce occupational noise. Because company leaders are usually unaware how much they spend on hearing conservation, Driscoll created an audit form that identifies the direct and indirect costs of hearing loss prevention programs. The form captures the costs of 18 variables, from expenses related to noise sampling equipment to time spent training employees.

Examining the data from the audit form for over 100 of his clients during the five-year period from 2009 to 2014, Driscoll determined that each worker in a hearing loss prevention program cost companies approximately $350 per year. This figure does not include the costs of controlling noise, which he calculated separately to average around $330,000 per plant. A company with these costs would achieve full return on its investment on hearing conservation and protection in a little under five years, Driscoll said.

Driscoll reported that sharing information on costs and ROI has helped convince otherwise skeptical managers to support noise-related health interventions. “Only through having these cost estimates could the management put their arms around it and understand the benefits of having the noise control,” he said.

Some interventions yield greater immediate benefits than others. One example is limiting use of compressed air, which is often used in manufacturing facilities to assist with production, close the flaps of boxes, and clean up around machines. Compressed air accounts for anywhere from a quarter to a third of a given plant’s noise problems, Driscoll said. Limiting or eliminating use of compressed air can dramatically lower noise exposures: according to Driscoll, limiting compressed air at one of his client’s facilities caused a ten-decibel drop in noise.

Other priority areas for industrial hygienists to address include equipment setup and maintenance. “Many times, solenoids or air cylinders will be oversized for the type of service they’re supposed to perform,” Driscoll said. Proper setup can mitigate noise from these devices.

But improvements in the workplace require persistence from industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals. “Every effective noise control program and every effective hearing loss prevention program has a common denominator,” Driscoll said. “It has a champion, someone who will take the lead. Hopefully, that will be you.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.