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AF studies Total Exposure Health approach in high-noise environments

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

Airmen work in challenging conditions that expose them to environmental stressors like extreme temperatures, chemicals or noise. The Air Force Medical Service is studying new and cost-effective ways to promote readiness by understanding these exposures.

Part of this task falls to the AFMS Total Exposure Health program. The TEH program was set up to track and understand cumulative exposures, including those outside of the workplace to prevent negative health outcomes and ensure the health and readiness of Airmen.

To demonstrate the program’s approach to enhancing warfighter health, researchers conducted a study examining around-the-clock noise exposures at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

The goal of the TEH program is to provide data-driven recommendations to commanders, providers and Airmen to prevent illness and injury due to various adverse exposures, improving deployability. By looking at noise exposure, the research team is able to demonstrate how the TEH approach can enhance warfighter health by understanding the impact of exposures on readiness.

This noise exposure “proof of concept” study was initially presented at the Total Exposure Health Conference in September 2018 in Rockville, Maryland, which was hosted by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Currently, Airmen exposed to loud work environments (85 decibels or more) are monitored through the Air Force Hearing Conservation Program. This study could help identify additional high-noise environments impacting other Airmen.

As Col. Philip Goff, chief of the Air Force TEH program, explains, it is important to capture noise exposure for all Airmen, including off-duty noise exposure.

“Airmen are less likely to wear hearing protection when they are off duty,” said Goff. “Just because they are off duty doesn’t mean a sound won’t affect their hearing, which is key to overall individual medical readiness.”

Overview of Moody Hearing Study

Researchers from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine Force Health Protection Branch, in support of the TEH program, studied the around-the-clock noise exposure for 19 Airmen at Moody AFB in April and May of 2018.

Participants wore an external microphone on their collar to record noise exposure levels throughout their day. The data was captured on an application downloaded to their smartphones.

The study found that every participant experienced at least one high-noise event that registered above 95 decibels. The study also found that while most participants experienced high-noise events during duty hours, some participants experienced high-noise exposures outside the workplace.

“Researchers also noticed that the participants became more aware of their noise exposure during the study,” said Goff. “This suggested that being able to view real-time noise exposure could have an effect on behaviors and actually promote the use of hearing protection during off-duty hours.”

While the participants in this study do not work in significantly loud environments that require them to enroll in the Hearing Conservation Program, researchers found that Airmen are still at risk to be exposed to noise events that could potentially impact their hearing over time.

The results of this study illustrated the importance of identifying cost-effective ways to capture noise exposure risks and develop potential interventions to reduce the risk of hearing loss for all Airmen.

Impact of TEH pilot study

The Moody study effectively demonstrated the impact of the TEH approach to warfighter health and readiness. Goff says that future studies should continue looking into the use of cost-effective solutions to gather exposure data and further improve intervention efforts.

“We believe that TEH is a great way to capture exposures and make evidence-based risk assessments,” said Goff. “With that data, we can recommend tailored actions to reduce risk, prevent disease, lower health care costs, and improve the health and readiness of all Airmen.”

“We live in an exciting time with the opportunity to employ technology to better assess the impact of various exposures,” said Col. Jay Vietas, Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Associate Corps Chief. “It’s important that we consider harnessing this technology to improve the health of our Airmen.”