Employees at Risk of Hearing Loss: What Employers Can Do to Help

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Employees at Risk of Hearing Loss: What Employers Can Do to Help

Millions and millions of employees show up, do their job, clock out and go home day after day, month after month, year after year. However, for some 22 million people, this workday routine harbors a hidden danger: potential for permanent hearing loss from exposure to loud noise in the workplace.

Yet, according to every major regulatory and protection agency from OSHA to the World Health Organization (WHO) to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), workplace hearing loss is 100 percent preventable.

Why, then, are U.S. businesses paying more than $1.5 million annually in penalties for improper implementation or non-compliance with OSHA’s hearing conservation program? Perhaps it is because when it comes to loud and harmful noise in the workplace, people understand the need for hearing protection devices (HPDs), yet are unaware of what goes into selecting proper HPDs.

Not only can proper HPDs protect employees against hearing loss, but they also have the potential to save employers an estimated $242 million annually in workplace-related hearing loss disability through workers' compensation.

Risk Factors

When workplace noise and vibrations occur at a high level or continue for an extended period of time, workers are at higher risk of experiencing temporary or permanent hearing loss. Among those at high risk include industrial workers who are exposed to potentially damaging, high-noise situations as a result of equipment and processes associated with production, manufacturing, foundries, mills and shops.

These high-noise situations often result from a combination of machine components and operations such as:

  • Blasting
  • Crushing
  • Cutting
  • Extrusion
  • Grinding
  • Punching
  • Riveting
  • Sanding

While machine work and operations may be all in a day’s work for some employees, the associated noise can result in hearing loss that is gradual and painless. Unfortunately, it affects some 24 percent of U.S. workers, making occupational hearing loss one of the nation’s most common work-related hazards.

Three Hearing-related Issues Caused by Workplace Noise

The cost of noise-induced hearing loss is shocking—it has a wide-reaching and holistic effect on a person’s physical, emotional and occupational well-being.

Physical. Excessive and/or prolonged noise can destroy inner ear nerve endings, causing permanent damage that affects a person’s ability to perform daily tasks.

Psychological. Noise-induced hearing loss can cause a wide range of mental disorders, such as irritability, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, isolation and hostility.

Occupational. Hearing impairment often interferes with communication, concentration and job performance. It is a contributing factor to workplace accidents and injuries and may have a negative impact on a worker’s lifetime earning potential.

Three Safeguards Employers Can Put into Place

So, what can employers do to help their employees reduce exposure and conserve their hearing? Namely, they can implement an effective and ongoing hearing conservation program that includes three key components.

Test and monitor. Naturally, the goal of employers through a hearing conservation program is to ensure safe, healthful working conditions for employees. OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1910.95 for Occupational Noise Exposure is a good place to start, along with the hearing conservation guidelines issues by the Canadian Standard Association (CSA), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and International Association for Standardization (ISO).

Under these guidelines, employers with employees exposed to an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) of 85 decibels or greater should:

  • Monitor exposure levels and repeat monitoring when noise increases as a result of changes in production, process, equipment or controls.
  • Perform baseline hearing tests (audiograms) on affected employees.
  • Conduct annual audiograms on affected employees and compare them to baselines.

Evaluate and ensure the adequacy of HPD attenuation for the specific noise environment. Employers must comply with OSHA’s attenuation guidelines, as outlined in the hearing protection standard Part 1910, Subpart G, Appendix B. The guidelines state that employers must calculate attenuation values and evaluate HPD attenuation for the noise environment in which it will be worn.

For example, while earplugs have their rightful place in some hearing conservation programs, foam earplugs have the potential to deliver more attenuation variability than, say, custom-molded earplugs. Earmuffs, on the other hand, deliver less attenuation variability than either foam or custom-molded earplugs. The attenuation calculation, therefore, should be a key determinant in selecting the proper solution for the environment.

Fit, provide and train employees in the use and wear of suitable HPDs. While the OSHA standard requires the use of hearing protection, the standard does not mandate just what kind of HPDs to provide. Instead, it states in 1910.95(i)(3) that “employees shall be given the opportunity to select their hearing protectors from a variety of suitable hearing protectors provided by the employer.” This can leave employers feeling a bit in the dark as to how to decide which HPDs to offer.

One consideration should be comfort. Why? Because research shows workers will not wear HPD consistently and correctly if it is ill-fitting, awkward or uncomfortable for any length of time. Not wearing HPD, of course, leads to increased noise exposure and greater risk of hearing loss, as demonstrated by a five-year study of audiometric data from 20,000 employees.8 This same study also concluded that HPDs should be selected as much for comfort, convenience and communication, in addition to their ability to reduce noise.

While earplugs may, at first, seem like a simple, obvious and cost-conscious solution to noise in the workplace, they are not necessarily the best solution for the grimy, grubby conditions of industrial facilities. In general, safety-conscious employers will want to evaluate over-the-ear, cap-mounted HPDs, which are more suitable for their unique working environment and comfortable enough for workers to wear them all the time.

Effective and Comfortable Hearing Protection

There’s no getting around it—to be effective in helping prevent workplace-related hearing loss in noisy environments, HPDs must be worn constantly when noise levels are high. That means they must be comfortable enough for workers to wear them for as long as necessary. The fact is, if HPDs are removed for even a brief period of time, hearing protection and attenuation are dramatically reduced.

Here’s a checklist to help employers make the best decision in choosing HPDs for noise-exposed employees:

Pay attention to attenuation. Choose earmuffs that offer high (NRR 31dB), medium (NRR 28dB) and low (NRR 24dB) attenuation. Bonus tip: color-coded earmuffs offer at-a-glance identification of attenuation levels.

Check for compatibility and interoperability. Make sure earmuffs work with existing industrial helmets, accommodate any type of visor or frame and are tested to the safety standard so as to maintain interoperability.

Look for long-wearing extras. Examine earmuffs for sealing rings and adapters, which optimize and relieve pressure on the ears, and check for foam-injected ear pads and other soft points of contact on and around the ears.

Embrace personal style. When earmuffs look good (aka, modern and sleek) workers are more likely to want to don them. Matte finishes tend to be a popular look because they minimize the look of wear-and-tear.

Think flexibility and convenience. Self-adjustable options let wearers get a semi-custom fit, while earmuffs that can be conveniently parked when doffed then just as quickly donned when needed are much appreciated by wearers.

Here’s the best tip of all: if you’re ready to take your hearing conservation program to the next level, contact a safety representative to discover how new, higher-attenuated, cap-mounted earmuffs protect workers’ hearing.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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