Marine Corps mandates yearly hearing tests
Mandatory annual hearing tests for all Marines start now under a new policy aimed at putting some muscle behind the Corps' hearing conservation program. The goal of the new policy is "100 percent hearing readiness," according to Marine administrative message 010/12. The MARADMIN states that Marines who haven't had a hearing test in the past year must get one before May 5.
Active-duty units also are required to have a hearing-readiness training standdown within four months of the MARADMIN. Reserve units have six months.
Marines, sailors and civilians working with the Marine Corps must be enrolled in the hearing conservation program, said Mike Miller, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the Marine Corps' Safety Division. Requiring a test for all Marines is new, Miller said. Tests already are required for Marines who work in noisy environments such as aviation, artillery, infantry and armor. Most Marines follow through with the requirement, but some fall through the cracks for various reasons.
That includes recruits, who are supposed to get a baseline test upon entry, as well as others who have worked in noisy environments but stop receiving regular checkups when they leave to take another job. And some jobs are noisier than you might think. Kitchen work, for example, requires Marines to spend a lot of time around blenders and other loud machines. Marine bands, where instruments can be blasted near musicians' heads, also pose some risk.
Anything above 85 decibels, Miller said, can cause hearing loss. A normal conversation hits about 60 decibels, according to statistics provided by the Marine Corps, and a generator reaches about 95 decibels. At 150 decibels, which an M16 can register, it's possible for an eardrum to rupture.
The MARADMIN also requires units to conduct baseline inventories of noise levels and mitigation measures, including proper fittings of ear protection for Marines. The new policies are an effort to boost early detection, and prevent further hearing loss, with regular exams, Miller said.
"Even if you're an office worker, it doesn't mean you're not going to fly in a helicopter sometime or ride in a truck or, if you're deployed to Afghanistan, be exposed to explosive noises," he said. "We suspect we'll get better outcomes if we continually remind Marines that loud noise is as damaging to your ears as secondhand smoke is to your lungs. Just like we send them all to dental exams and health assessments, good hearing is part and parcel of a holistic view of a Marine's health."
A Government Accountability Office report published last January concluded the cost to the Veterans Affairs Department in 2009 for hearing loss and injury compensation exceeded $1 billion paid to more than a million claimants from all services. This prompted the Navy Audit Service to take a closer look at its own programs. That study showed Marines who left the service in 2007 and 2008 submitted more than 9,000 claims with associated long-term costs climbing past $404 million.
In addition to the injured Marines, the audit found that the Corps' hearing programs were not considered a priority and were being administered exclusively at the unit level.
"We weren't centrally managing hearing conservation programs from Headquarters Marine Corps," Miller said. "Medical wasn't connected with the safety aspect."
Sound-level meters regularly are used in noisy work environments to determine decibel levels, and industrial hygienists at Navy hospitals and Marine Corps installations routinely survey work areas, sometimes by hanging a sound-level meter on an individual worker.