Background: Noise exposure remains one of the most ubiquitous of occupational hazards. Hearing conservation program legislation and the programs themselves were designed to lower risk of resulting occupational noise-induced hearing loss, but there has been no broad-based effort to assess the effectiveness of this policy.
Methods: The incidence of a 10-dB standard threshold shift was examined in a group of Canadian lumber mill workers, using annual audiogram series obtained from the Workers' Compensation Board of British Columbia for the period 1979-1996 and using Cox proportional hazard models.
Results: Mean cumulative noise exposure was 98.1 dB-years. The audiograms from 22,376 individuals, among whom there were 2,839 threshold shifts of 10 dB or greater (i.e., a "standard threshold shift"), were retained in multivariable analyses. After adjusting for potential confounders, continuous use of hearing protection, and initial hearing tests later in the study period, the risk for standard threshold shift was reduced by 30%. Risk increased sixfold, however, in those with the highest noise exposure.
Conclusions: Hearing conservation programs may be effective in reducing overall incidence of hearing loss. In the absence of noise control at source, however, highly exposed workers remain at unnecessary risk.
Copyright 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.