Protecting the Hear and Now

The real issue is not that hearing protection has played second fiddle to other PPE products, but that there is a lack of education regarding noise-induced hearing loss.

If you look at the personal protective equipment market, you might make the argument that hearing protection is like the bench warmer in baseball: It often doesn't get to play with the heavy hitters, such as high-visibility apparel and safety eyewear.

Let's face it, plastic, rubber, and foam don't get people excited. On the surface, hearing protection devices (HPDs) are not as fashionable as eyewear. They are not as technical as high-visibility clothing, gas detection, and fall protection. As a result, most people don't take protecting the ears very seriously.

In the beginning, ear muffs were heavy, and foam ear plugs were made of environmentally unfriendly PVC. The barrel style ear plug was essentially the only disposable option, and it was hard to roll up and insert in your ear canal. Reusable ear plugs were made from firmer compounds and were not nearly as comfortable as what is currently available.

Today's marketplace offers more colors, shapes, and styles than ever before. Ear plugs are now designed with taper-fit tips that allow for much easier insertion. Ear muffs are made from lightweight materials that help with all-day comfort. What might surprise most is that when it comes to HPDs, there are now lots of options. Some of the new options are even stylish and packed with technology. The three major players in today's marketplace are (1) ear plugs, (2) banded ear plugs, and (3) ear muffs.

Within the ear plug category, you have disposable and reusable ear plugs. Most ear plugs are offered in both corded and uncorded versions. Corded ear plugs, even on the disposable side, give workers the opportunity to reuse their ear plugs by allowing them to hang conveniently about the neck when not in use. Disposable ear plugs are generally made of foam. usually either polyurethane foam or PVC foam. Polyurethane and PVC foams have an open cell structure that is responsive to body heat and will in time contour to the shape of your ear canal. Reusable ear plugs can be made of silicone, polyvinyl, and other types of plastics or rubber. What makes reusable ear plugs unique is that they can be cleaned with warm water and soap.

Both disposable and reusable ear plugs come in any number of shapes, sizes, and colors. The options are literally limitless. Chances are, if you have thought of a unique shape, color, or size, it is probably already being produced. Today's market offers camouflage, neon colors, bells, bullets, wings, barrels, and everything in between.

Advantages of Custom Molded Ear Plugs
An interesting new technology in reusable ear plugs is the custom molded ear plugs. Whether you have them professionally poured in your ear on site or you decide to go the do-it-yourself route, custom molded ear plugs offer users ear plugs that are shaped exclusively to their ear canals.

A silicone-based material is poured or placed in your ear canal. It is given time to cure and takes the shape of your ear canal, providing a custom fit. They are just as portable as conventional foam and reusable ear plugs, but ideally they provide a higher level of comfort because they mimic the shape of your ear canal. And because custom molded ear plugs take the shape of your ear canal, they go in only one way.

Traditional disposable and reusable ear plugs can be partially in or out. Custom molded earplugs eliminate the subjectivity associated with improper insertion and promote optimal compliance. As with other HPDs, custom colors are available to help personalize the product.

Options for Intermittent Use
For intermittent use of HPDs, banded ear plugs and ear muffs are much more convenient. Unlike ear plugs, they do not have to be inserted in the ear canal. Most banded ear plugs are semi-aural versus inner aural, and therefore they are positioned on the outside of the ear canal. Semi-aural refers to a portion of the ear plug being partially inside the ear canal.

As a result, banded ear plugs generally have lower noise reduction ratings (NRR) than disposable and reusable ear plugs. However, there are some advantages to the banded style of hearing protection: They are much easier to take on and off. So if you are in a moderately noisy environment that requires only intermittent use of HPDs, banded ear plugs are a great option. In addition, in regard to compliance, they are much easier to see than disposable and reusable ear plugs, so it is easier to verify their usage. Again, there are tons of color choices and styles.

Lots of Options with Ear Muffs
Ear muffs are perhaps the most diverse category of hearing protection. Although most are worn with the band over the top of the head, some styles of ear muffs can be worn under the chin, behind the head, or even mounted to a hard hat. Unlike disposable and reusable ear plugs and banded ear plugs, ear muffs are not inserted into the ear canal or semi-aurally, either. Instead, they cover the entire ear.

The materials list for ear muffs is endless: ABS, nylon, rubber, foam, gels, polycarbonate, and metals, just to name a few. Ear muffs are generally designed to be lightweight and comfortable, but they are heavier than ear plugs and banded hearing protection. In high-noise environments they are mandatory, because they protect the eardrum not only from sound waves, but also from vibration.

Sometimes ear muffs are worn in conjunction with ear plugs. Known as double plugging, this practice provides additional protection.

Where ear muffs get exciting is when you add electronics. Do you want to communicate with a colleague and still protect yourself? Communication headsets with electronics built into the ear muffs are the answer. If impulse noise is an issue, there are ear muffs with compression technology. These ear muffs essentially take noise that is above 85-90 decibels and compress it down to a safe level. Most even allow you to simultaneously communicate while in the environment of the impulse noise. The circuitry is housed in the ear cups of the ear muff, so although they are a little heavier, the size of the device remains the same. Ear muffs with compression technology tend to be task-specific and are not recommended in environments where constant noise above 85 decibels is present.

The Challenge of NIHL
As you can see, we have lots of options to choose from in today’s personal protective equipment marketplace. Hearing protection devices are more comfortable than ever before, so maybe HPDs are beginning to get respect in the world of PPE.

Ultimately, why is all of this important? According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 30 million workers in the United States are occupationally exposed to hazardous noises each year. Ten million of those workers suffer from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Has hearing protection been on the bench so long that we are allowing one-third of the workers exposed to high noise levels to suffer from hearing loss, or does this dilemma point to something more problematic?

The real issue is not that hearing protection has played second fiddle to other PPE products, but that there is a lack of education regarding NIHL. Users either don't know the hazards or work in an environment where the safety culture is not taken seriously.

Manufacturers have spent time and money to develop hearing protection options engineered to increase comfort while protecting hearing. Although still not as fashion-forward as the eyewear category, hearing protection devices have come a long way. They are lighter, more effective, and stylish. It is important that hearing protection be taken seriously by both worker and management. Properly identifying the need for hearing protection devices is critical.

Engineering and administrative controls always should be the first options. Hearing protection should be used in conjunction with these controls and not instead of these measures. Noise surveys and simply listening to workers can make sure the right HPD is being used for their working environment.

Hearing conservation is important, and hearing loss is 100 percent preventable. Take the time to explore all of the hearing protection options available with your local distributor. Take a "Protect the Hear and Now" approach to hearing conservation and help eliminate noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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