Alcoa began giving employees audiograms in 1952, 30 years before OSHA would issue its Hearing Conservation Amendment in 1983, according to Christine Dixon-Ernst, CIH, and technical manager, occupational health, for Alcoa.
Making decisions about hearing conservation before regulators took action, Alcoa in 1975 adopted an internal standard of a permissible exposure level for noise of 85 dBA. In 1979 the company began to computerize its audiometric tests, and in 1980 developed an internal standard for dealing with workers with hear loss and shifts in their level of hearing.
So it was no surprise when OSHA issued its updated hearing conservation laws in 1983, Alcoa found itself through audits to be already in compliance. “We used the (new OSHA law) as a trigger, a springboard to develop a long-term corporate-wide strategy across our global locations to further reduce hearing loss,” said Dixon-Ernst. Noise is an obvious and significant health risk in aluminum smelters.
Hearing loss among Alcoa workers has been reduced in the past 15 years, but much work remains, said Dixon-Ernst. She still battles the management perception that “our people can’t be having hearing loss because they’re all wearing HPDs.” That doesn’t address the issues that HPDs might be fitted poorly, removed to communicate, or simply not worn when there is no monitoring, she said.
Among the benchmarks of Alcoa’s hearing conservation program: hearing conservation coordinators are assigned at each location worldwide; a corporate hearing program has been standardized and harmonized for all locations worldwide; goals have been set to reduce hearing loss; annual program audits are conducted with reports ensuing; workers with a recorded hearing loss shift of at least 10 dBA are tracked to determine if the loss is work-related, or due to a head cold, concert seen over the weekend, recreational hunting, or attending a NASCAR race on Sunday and getting a hearing test Monday morning.