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Reinvigorating engineered noise controls: a systems approach.

OBJECTIVES: Hearing loss is a major worldwide health issue affecting an estimated 1.5 billion people. Causes of hearing loss include genetics, chemicals, medications, lifestyle habits such as smoking, and noise. Noise is probably the largest contributing factor for hearing loss. Noise arises from the workplace, ambient environment, and leisure activities. The easiest noise sources to control are workplace and environmental. Workplace noise is unique in that the employer is responsible for the noise and the worker. Also, workers may be exposed to much higher levels of noise than they would accept elsewhere. Employers follow the traditional hierarchy of controls (substitution/engineering, administrative, personal protective equipment [PPE]). Substituting or engineering a lower noise level actually reduces the hazard present to the worker but demand more capital investment. Administrative and PPE controls can be effective, but enforcement and motivation are essential to reducing risk and there is still some hearing loss for a portion of the workers. The challenge is to estimate the costs more clearly for managers. A systems engineering approach can help visualize factors affecting hearing health.

MATERIAL AND METHODS: In this study, a systems engineering causal loop diagram (CLD) was developed to aid in understanding factors and their interrelationships. The CLD was then modeled in VenSim. The model was informed from the authors' expertise in hearing health and exposure science. Also, a case study was used to test the model. The model can be used to inform decision-makers of holistic costs for noise control options, with potentially better hearing health outcomes for workers.

RESULTS: The CLD and cost model demonstrated a 4.3 year payback period for the engineered noise control in the case study.

CONCLUSIONS: Systems thinking using a CLD and cost model for occupational hearing health controls can aid organizational managers in applying resources to control risk. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2023;36(5):672-84.

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