Hearing conservation protects Airmen, readiness: Are you at risk?

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Air Force hearing conservation programs work to minimize hazards for Airmen working in high-risk environments.

Audiologists and hearing specialists focus on preventing hearing loss to protect Airmen and maintain readiness.

“We all know hearing is important to us and our ability to do our jobs,” said Maj. Daniel Williams, program manager, Air Force hearing conservation program, 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “Hearing loss can create miscommunications that lead to errors and mistakes.”

Airmen are at higher risk of hearing loss during deployment where the environment can be noisy, and other factors such as dust and debris impact hearing protection devices. Additionally, certain specialties expose Airmen to continuous hazardous noise.

“Several Air Force specialties are at increased risk for hearing loss,” said Lt. Col. Brandon Tourtillott, Air Force liaison for the Joint Clinical and Rehabilitative Medicine Research Program at Fort Detrick, Maryland. “Those who work on the flight line or part of the aircrew are at risk of developing high frequency hearing loss during their career. Special Operations Airmen are also at increased risk of hearing loss due to their roles in combat and rescue missions.”

Other serious symptoms and injuries can accompany hearing loss.

“The hearing system is one of the primary systems that gives information to the brain,” said Williams. “If that gets compromised or damaged, you’re limiting the quantity and quality of information that the brain receives. This can lead to cognitive and mental health disabilities, or can worsen existing disabilities.”

To assess the risk of hearing loss and control exposure to hazardous noise, bioenvironmental engineers carefully evaluate the environment for hazardous noise exposure.

“The [engineers] assess the environment prior to deployment to determine the risk of hearing loss,” said Williams. “Any risk of hearing loss is listed on Airmen’s orders and they can enroll in a hearing conservation program prior to deploying.”

According to Williams, program goals are to:

• Educate Airmen of their risk and impact of hearing loss.

• Ensure the right hearing protection is provided.

• Monitor their hearing so those members are aware if their hearing is starting to degrade.

Another variable in protecting Airmen’s hearing is using the right protection devices. But, as Tourtillott explains, this is not as simple as handing out earplugs.

“It takes a specialist to identify the correct protection device,” said Tourtillott. “We identify the correct level of protection, and ensure they are able to do their job properly with that protection on.”

The currently deployed attenuating custom communications earpiece system, or ACCES, works at ensuring Airmen are able to do their job while protecting their hearing.

“ACCES is a step up from the standard passive earplugs,” explains Hilary Gallagher, acting deputy branch chief for the Battlespace Acoustics branch at the 711th Human Performance Wing, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “The passive earplugs, or foam earplugs, do a great job of blocking out noise, but the issue is that they also block out the communication signal, which could hinder Airmen’s ability to do their jobs. ACCES reduces overall noise exposure while preserving the ability to receive communication directly to the ear, allowing Airmen to do their jobs effectively.”

Good hearing is necessary for Airmen to do their job and support the mission. Airmen need to know hearing loss is permanent and can worsen over time.

“We live in a world that thinks about today and forgets about tomorrow,” said Tourtillott. “Many do not consider the long-term consequences of hearing loss. Hearing is vital to everything we do and if we don’t protect it now, it can worsen over time and severely impact readiness and our future quality of life.”