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Take ’Em Home: Help Workers Protect Their Hearing Off the Clock
Home is our castle. Home is where the heart is. But home, like the workplace, is also where the noise is.
At the work site, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to protect the hearing of workers exposed to hazardous noise. Safety managers work hard to protect employees from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Machines, equipment, processes, and even the work site itself can be engineered to reduce the impact of damaging noise on workers. Hearing protection devices (HPDs) are provided to workers, along with training and other personal protective equipment, in order to maintain an environment--and a culture--of safety, protecting employees against hearing damage and other dangers.
But hazardous noise is not exclusive to the workplace. And since best practice has shown that providing a good variety of hearing protectors improves compliance, why not encourage workers to wear hearing protection off the job as well as on it?
Reinforcing a worker's awareness of noise hazards present in everyday activities brings the hearing conservation message "home" in a very powerful way. This kind of discussion grabs a worker's attention and encourages the use of earplugs as a natural part of everyday life — in effect, a positive habit.
And while it's the employee who will suffer the lifelong effects of permanent damage from NIHL, in many cases, when it comes to the cost, the employer can also end up paying a price.
The strategy is simple: Encourage workers to take and use their hearing protection at home. "Take ’em home."
Not All Peace and Quiet
Home is absolutely not all peace and quiet. At work, hearing protection is required by OSHA at 90 dB and is used by most employees who are exposed above 85 dB. At home, you should use hearing protection for any hazardous noise (above 85 dB) because you are adding to the length of time you are exposed to hazardous noise. Because sound energy doubles every 3 dB, it's not that hard to reach that level.
Everyday household activities fill up our hearing with sound. We start the day awakening to our alarm clock (75 dB) and go about surrounding ourselves with noise: hair dryer (80 dB), blender (85 dB), and telephone (82 dB). While these activities may not rise to the level of the definition of hazardous noise and are for the most part intermittent, they are close.
And when the day gets going, we really crank it up in our activities: vacuum cleaner (74 dB), power lawn mower (94 dB), chain saw (118 dB), home workshop tools (table saw: 93 dB), and--for entertainment--stereo systems and personal listening devices, such as mp3 players (they can exceed 100 dB). Moreover, at playtime, we often enjoy ourselves at activities that are just as loud, if not more so. Consider: motorcycle (105 dB), rock concert (120 dB), auto racing (130 dB), fireworks (162 dB), and hunting (shotgun: 170 dB).
'Take 'Em Home'
When workers are at home, they often take the sound of their surroundings for granted--because they are not at work. The same culture of safety does not apply. NIHL is simply not top-of-mind. That's the danger for individuals, but it's also the opportunity for safety managers to encourage workers using HPDs on the job to "take 'em home."
To be effective, it's important the "take 'em home" message be overt and not just tacit. The message and encouragement from management must be loud. Management is not simply looking the other way. And by no means should employees be made to feel that they are pilfering.
Post signs by disposable ear plug dispensers recommending that employees "Pocket a Pair for Home." Specifically mention the policy in training sessions and group meetings. Seek out opportunities to talk about the practice of hearing conservation everywhere, in order to drive the safety message home. And, importantly, specify which hearing protectors are freely available for home use.
What types of ear plugs are best to offer? While single-use foam models cost less per pair, multiple-use ear plugs, which may be washed and reused many times, can actually be more economical, especially in an off-the-job setting where use is less frequent.
Multiple-use ear plugs also can be easier to insert, but everyone's ears are different. It is important that workers select and use their hearing protection for home with the same best practices as work:
- Find a pair that is designed for comfort. A bell-shaped foam is great.
- Select a corded style to keep from getting lost in the shuffle and excitement of an active home or recreational activity.
- Read the label. Pick a pair that provides a high NRR rating for ample protection.
- Follow the instructions to achieve the proper fit. Practice!
As is the case anywhere, an ear plug that is comfortable and effective for one person may be uncomfortable and ineffective for another. Just as offering choices for employees is best for at-work compliance, it is also best for home use.
Of course, at home, individual workers are ultimately responsible for their own hearing protection and conservation. Safety managers and other professionals can provide the best training, the best equipment, and the best support at work. But to ensure their safety from NIHL, workers must also take their learned "best practices" home and protect their hearing off the clock, as well as on the clock.
Ear plugs block out unwanted noise that can cause hearing damage, at home as well as on the job--so, go ahead, "take 'em home."
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.