Protection For the Next Generation

Today's industrial workforce points to a growing Trendy user segment. They won't accept discomfort in their ears for the benefit of hearing protection.

DOES anyone know the NRR of a pinky finger? Hearing protectors have evolved a great deal from their early days. Innovation has been driven by performance measures. Manufacturers have continued to raise the bar in levels of comfort, softness, attenuation levels, ease of use, and convenience.

Improvements in these performance-based areas have led to more comfortable and functional products, no doubt helping the cause with compliance. Somewhat lost in the fold, however, is today?s industrial hearing protection wearer. The retirement of Baby Boomers is leading to a younger workforce, a new group with different backgrounds and needs than the previous generation. What products do they want, and how can we better motivate them to wear hearing protection?

Type in the words "Hearing Protection" in a Web search today, and you are liable to be inundated with the breadth of products available on the market--from simple disposable foam ear plugs to communication headsets that will do your laundry for you. Choices are out there, from colors to shapes to custom mold ear plugs. Do you have anything in fuchsia?

Choice is important. Everyone's ear canal is different. The variety is great, but does the plethora of hearing protection options have what it takes for today?s younger and more diverse workforce?

Results of Our Survey
In mid 2002, our company conducted user research on the hearing protection markets in both the United States and Europe. The study, examining new opportunities within the hearing protection segments and product potentials, involved 14 sites (seven each in the United States and Europe). Each site employed several hundred employees. The study had a strong emphasis on performance-based criteria (i.e., comfort, fit, effectiveness, etc.).

Out of this study came a surprising new way to look at market segmentation. Wearers were classified into four categories: Traditional, Pragmatic, Casual, and Trendy. The Traditional user was an experienced worker wearing established products. The Pragmatic user was one who wears his or her "preferred" product (this is the one person in the plant who wears a muff when all others wear ear plugs). The Casual user was one who has no preference and will wear whatever is available. Finally, the Trendy user was the younger worker who typically wears soft plugs in a variety of colors.

This article will focus on the Traditional and Trendy users. These two groups make up the vast majority of the wearers in the United States. The Traditional users are experienced workers who wear an established hearing protection product and have for some time. They trust the product, believing it is the most effective, and will accept minor ear discomfort with the assurance that their hearing is protected.

The Trendy users are younger workers who primarily wear soft plugs in various colors. They wear the product to be compliant, not for effectiveness, and they will not accept discomfort in their ears for the benefit of hearing protection. Ease of fitting, either in the form of shaped or no-roll-down plugs, is desirable to this group.

The size and makeup of these two classifications of hearing protection wearers is in constant flux. Trendy users often evolve to become Traditional users once they gain substantial experience with a product. It is clear the makeup of today?s industrial workforce points to a growing Trendy user segment.

Understanding the Differences
There is a sharp contrast between the needs of the Trendy and Traditional users. This next generation, if you will, has different wants and motivations. It?s best understood by asking the question, "What?s in their heads?"

The younger generation of workers is difficult to motivate to wear any PPE, and hearing protection is certainly no exception. Hearing loss can be a slow burn, happening over a number of years. This message is difficult to convey to a younger person. It?s like telling someone to floss who has never had a cavity. This is a group that has grown up with noisy lifestyles--their parents listened to Led Zeppelin. This background creates the perception that some workplace noise is not hazardous, particularly when it was louder in the dance club on the weekend.

Other PPE can use pain as a motivator. You ever been hit on the head by a 2x4 falling off of 40 feet of scaffolding? . . . Better wear your hard hat. There is no pain with hearing loss, and often it is not even realized until much later. A classic motivational pitch to wear hearing protection is, "Don't you want to be able to hear your grandkids?" This message often gets lost when presented to an invincible twenty-something who is still trying to be a grandchild.

Another key issue in motivation to wear hearing protection is experience; particularly first- or secondhand experience with the life change hearing loss can create. A seasoned worker is much more likely to have dealt intimately with a family member or friend who has lost hearing and seen the damaging effects on livelihood. This can foster motivation through the realization of how critical our hearing is to our interaction with the world around us.

Taking a step back from hearing protection, there are many things that set this generation apart from the previous one. Start with an overwhelming need to express individuality and style. Anyone got the line on tattoos to body-piercing? This style is more than a fad. Hairstyles, clothing, tattoos, and piercing are all used as forms of expression. Can hearing protection be used in the form of a stylish expression?

In today's world, the latest technology is often outdated the minute it is introduced. Computers, cell phones, and video games are just a few examples. Younger workers are used to new products, and they seek them because they are different and fresh. Yesterday's skier is today's snowboarder. In that same vein, younger workers prefer different hearing protection product styles than older workers.

This group is strongly influenced by co-workers' product choice. The products worn by older workers are not perceived to be as "cool" as what they see worn by their younger peers.

This generation does not subscribe to the no-pain, no-gain mentality. Traditional workers accept minor ear discomfort in exchange for the assurance of protection. Younger workers will not. Younger workers are also less apt to take the time (or have the patience) to properly fit a foam plug. They will seek out plugs that are easier and quicker to fit.

A Hefty Challenge
Perhaps the most compelling observation from this research, albeit not surprising, was that, if given a choice, the Trendy user would not wear hearing protection at all. This speaks volumes to the challenges that safety professionals and hearing conservationists face on a daily basis. This group can be motivated, but research suggests that the traditional message and products be tailored to the younger user.

They are less driven by how well the hearing protector works. They are driven by aesthetics. Intense colors and unique shapes allow for expression. They are driven by comfort. Ear plugs that are soft in the ear and soft to the touch. Ear plugs that are easy to fit and easy to wear. They are driven by a willingness to try new types. Used to a world of constant new products, they search for the hearing protector that is right for them.

OSHA's regulation 29 CFR 1910.95 contains the "variety" requirement affording the hearing protection wearer a choice of products. The common interpretation for "variety" is more than two. Does this "variety" allow for the products the younger workforce is looking for?

In the end, the best hearing protector is the one that is worn. Younger users are looking for new, different, colorful, soft, and easy-to-wear products. Give them that choice.

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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