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CAOHC Newsletter: UPDATE

Enhancing the Professional Supervisor and OHC Partnership

Deanna Meinke, Ph.D.

Critical Communication Checklist for Audiometric Monitoring:
  • Calibration protocols
  • Current personnel certifications (CAOHC & State Licensure)
  • Audiometric testing protocol and timelines
  • Confidentiality protocol
  • Audiogram review criteria
  • Medical referral protocols
  • Software set-ups
  • Communication expectations and methods

The architects of the original Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hearing conservation amendment had it right when they envisioned a partnership between an audiometric technician and a professional supervisor (audiologist or physician) with regard to audiometric monitoring of noise-exposed workers. In fact, this model has been perpetuated in subsequent regulations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). CAOHC has built upon this framework and worked to develop, standardize and implement the training and continuing education that each partner needs to be successful.

Perhaps less obvious are the characteristics that help each person fulfill their roles and responsibilities to each other and contribute to the hearing loss prevention program they work towards.

Communication: Certainly, communication is a pre-requisite for success. It is a two-way exchange that provides the occasion for the professional supervisor to guide the OHC in adhering to high-quality testing protocols and the occupational hearing conservationist (OHC) the opportunity to express any concern, or discuss problems or unique situations encountered during the administration of hearing tests . Successful communication facilitates good decisions regarding test validity, Standard Threshold Shift (STS) status, baseline revision, medical referral decisions and work-related determinations for each individual tested. Equipment will fail, headphones will be reversed, workers will be difficult, and ears will have significant medical conditions. Prompt and open communications will minimize the impact of any errors and maximize the efficiency of proper medical care for the worker.

Ways to enhance communication include; leveraging technology (direct email access, texting etc. for immediate issues); responding within reasonable timelines and valuing honesty and confidentiality.

Mutual Respect: Communication is much easier in an environment of mutual respect. I have always admired the efficiency and knowledge of the OHC in the plant. They are amazing jugglers of multiple job duties, variable shift schedules and the intricacies of the company production routines. The professional supervisor is better served by recognizing the areas of expertise that the OHC brings to the hearing conservation program (HCP) and leveraging this expertise for program success. Similarly, the professional supervisor should be respected for their extensive knowledge and experience related to auditory function, regulatory compliance and hearing loss prevention. It is helpful to publicly eliminate any hierarchical communications that might diminish the contribution of either individual in the presence of others. This applies to professional supervisor comments towards OHCs but also OHCs with regard to external professional supervisors who do not have “rank” or “official” recognition within a company structure. These comments are often subtle and not readily recognized, but they can erode a relationship over time.

Respect can be shown by supporting each other in the presence of management and co-workers and trusting each other’s judgments. Consider observing each other at your primary work sites. This will provide a better understanding of the day-to-day challenges and workload experienced by each other.

Strive to Improve: No one likes to become stagnate in their work life. There are always ways for each partner to improve. Exchange ideas about ways to enhance the HCP and these will translate into personal improvement. For example, if the professional supervisor is slow to respond to OHC requests, then the HCP suffers. If the OHC fails to forward results for review in a timely manner or sends incomplete records, then the HCP suffers and the employer may be at risk of regulatory non-compliance. Therefore, if the “idea” is to improve the timelines for professional review and worker notification, then both the OHC and professional supervisor have to change their work habits for the better. A generic goal helps “depersonalize” the issues and foster improved teamwork.

Seek Mutual Feedback: This can be done either formally or informally. A formal mechanism ensures that an opportunity to give and receive feedback is always available, ideally at least once a year and perhaps more frequently early in the working relationship. If informal, find a time when work demands will not intrude and limit the exchange. Be specific in terms of feedback topics and balance the feedback in terms of strengths and weaknesses. No one routinely seeks out negative feedback. Bi-directional feedback is a good approach to take. Sometimes a professional supervisor does not recognize the impact their behavior or decisions have on an OHC. Consider setting mutually agreeable goals for the next period and define standards for future evaluation. Share the feedback with superiors when appropriate or requested. For instance, when an OHC provides quality services and their internal performance review is pending, the professional supervisor might offer to send a letter to the OHC’s employer highlighting the OHC’s exemplary work performance.

Some individuals may be reluctant to seek feedback. This may stem from feeling like you are imposing on the limited time and availability of the other person, insecurity about your own work or something as simple as a lack of energy to overcome any schedule challenges. Regardless of the rationale, it is always best to receive the feedback early on and have a better opportunity to respond. It is also helpful to document successes as well as specific plans to improve areas that have been identified together as those with room for improvement.

Trust Each Other: It seems an obvious assumption that the professional supervisor should be able to trust the test results and information provided by the OHC and vice versa, but there have been instances where this has not been the case. If test results are manipulated or even fabricated, the ramifications can be career threatening for either or both individuals. There may be legal implications for the individuals involved. Our roles in a HCP are not isolated and what we do influences the success and integrity of others. Trust is fundamental to program success and a positive working relationship between OHCs and professional supervisors. Honor your commitments to each other.

Problem Solve Together: Relationships grow stronger in the face of adversity. In these economic times it is not unheard of that hearing conservation program resources are being reduced or eliminated. Quality may be sacrificed in the process or even the job of the OHC or professional supervisor eliminated. Working together to address issues that threaten the integrity and quality of the HCP will strengthen the working relationship.

Lend a Hand: The work load and sheer volume of hearing tests can be overwhelming at times for some OHCs. The pile (or megabytes) of audiograms needing review can be daunting to a professional reviewer. Consider how you can help each other with the immediate work load. It might be teaming up for conducting audiograms one day or organizing the review work for more efficient processing. There is always a way to lend a hand if you look for it. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention “lend an ear” as well. Sometimes just being available to listen and understand the day-to-day workplace challenges is helpful to each other.

Keep Learning: A colleague recently gave me a quote for my office advising one to “learn something new and then teach someone”. It is invigorating to any relationship to learn something new and then share it with someone else. The hearing conservation program will benefit if the OHC returns from a recent recertification course or the professional supervisor attends a scientific conference and integrates the updated knowledge, strategies and resources into the HCP. CAOHC and NHCA are teaming up to offer new ways to learn through new online seminars. Consider attending an event and exchanging the information with each other. Or better yet, attend the same event. It might actually be “fun” to work together to change the worker training or management point of reference using the new information.

Whether you are a professional supervisor or an audiometric technician, your roles and expertise are essential for the prevention of noise-induced hearing loss in the workers we serve. These partnerships may come and go depending on external forces impacting the hearing loss prevention program such as corporate mergers, downsizing, organizational restructuring, budget fluctuations or changing health and safety priorities. Regardless of whether you have had a long-term connection or are only just starting a new partnership, have a beverage together and open the lines of communication. Discuss ways to improve your OHC/professional supervisor relationship. Perhaps you will each find new ways to invigorate your own personal efforts and rejuvenate your hearing loss prevention programs.

Dr. Deanna Meinke is currently an Associate Professor of Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. She is a past president of the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) and chairs the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) “Safe-in-Sound Expert Committee”.