By putting the power of choice in your workers

Tips for Selecting and Ensuring Effective Hearing Protection

A key to ensuring effective protection is fit testing. Fit testing evaluates noise and provides workers an accurate reading of their hearing protection effectiveness.

Our sense of hearing is invaluable both on the job and off. Not only does it serve to keep us safe from nearby hazards, it enables us to experience the world around us and communicate with others. It's also fragile and can be taken for granted.

Exposure to loud noises reduces our ability to hear and can even lead to complete hearing loss. Unlike most injuries, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is painless, progressive and permanent, often going unnoticed until hearing loss has progressed substantially.

Occupational noise-induced hearing loss affects 24 percent of U.S. workers today. It's also the No. 1 most common and preventable workplace injury. Caused by cumulative exposure to loud noise or a single exposure to impact noise, the severity of NIHL is also influenced by the duration of noise and an individual's proximity to its source. NIHL can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears), limited ability to understand speech, impaired ability to communicate, reduced productivity and social isolation and withdrawal.

Despite employers' best controls, noise is difficult to eliminate from many environments. For the 22 million workers exposed to hazardous noise each year, finding effective hearing protection solutions they'll use—consistently and correctly—is vital.

According to OSHA's 29 CFR 1910.95(i)(3), it is the employer's responsibility to provide a variety of suitable hearing protection devices. But given the myriad solutions available, making informed selections can be daunting. This article explores the available options so you can help workers achieve dependable hearing protection and avoid the life-altering effects of NIHL.

Ear Plugs
Ear canals are as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Finding a comfortable, properly fitting and protective earplug is equally as individual. For this reason, earplugs are available in a wide variety of sizes, styles and materials–and each has its specific attributes. When selecting ear plugs, offer an array of options so workers can try different types and select a personally suitable solution.

Roll-downs are single-use, disposable ear plugs. Made of foam, they are very pliable and generally allow users to achieve good control over their fit, pressure and feel. Available in an assortment of shapes, sizes and firmness, they're also an economic solution. And because they’re disposable, there's no maintenance required: Users simply throw them away after use and pick a new pair the next day.

Roll-downs also present challenges. The first is their propensity to carry dirt and grime into the ear canal. Rolling down the material before insertion requires dexterity—and when a worker's fingers are dirty, dusty, grimy or greasy, that soil transfers onto the foam and makes its way into the ear canal. Another drawback is the potential for not placing them far enough into the ear—which renders the user unprotected from noise. Finally, roll-downs generate daily waste. For companies with an eye toward conservation, this waste—including the packaging as well as the ear plugs—may be a deterrent.

Made of plastic, reusable ear plugs last between two and four weeks, allowing employers to not only reduce waste but often save money since workers use fewer pairs per week. They come in various shapes designed for smooth and easy insertion and a solid fit, eliminating the need to roll, wiggle or burrow them into the canal. Innovative designs allow body heat to help the ear plug adapt to the shape of the ear; block hazardous noise while allowing voices through, and eliminate the common "plugged-up" feeling. Triple- and quadruple-flange styles help adjust size, shape and pressure inside the canal for a personalized fit. And because no roll-down is required, reusables offer a more hygienic solution than disposables.

Reusable ear plugs are ideal in places where workers can retain and store ear plugs, as well as where noise is intermittent: corded styles allow for easy removal and replacement. Finally, they're easily cleaned with soap and water; no chemicals required.

Reusable ear plugs may not work for individuals sensitive to plastic. Likewise, individuals who prefer the feel of foam may not achieve a familiar, comfortable fit from plastic styles. Finally, re-useable ear plugs generally provide less attenuation than a properly-fitting foam ear plug.

Push-in foam
Push-in foam (PIF) ear plugs are a hybrid solution that combines the benefits of disposable and reusable styles. PIFs deliver the comfort of foam but with the hygienic benefit of reusable ear plugs—no roll-down required. Moderately priced, they can be reused up to five days making them an economical solution for full- and part-time workers alike.

Because PIFs are made of foam which is denser than plastic, they deliver higher attenuation ratings than reusables, making them ideal for consistently loud environments. Many models feature special innovations that make them a comfortable, reliable solution for a wider segment of the workforce. Those with ergonomic stems are easy to insert and remove, even while gloves are worn, and eliminate the transfer of dirt from fingers to the ear. Those with soft dimpled tips collapse, allowing them to be easily and gently pushed into the ear canal, and they’re available corded for the convenience of frequent removal and replacement.

Before selecting any style of high attenuating ear plugs, be sure to measure noise levels and select the corresponding attenuation to ensure clear, safe communication among workers where needed. Another key to ensuring effective protection is fit testing. Fit testing evaluates noise and provides workers an accurate reading of their hearing protection effectiveness. Ear plugs are commonly misused, leaving the wearers unprotected without their knowledge.

Ear Muffs
Ear muffs are an ideal hearing protection solution in many environments. Full protection is generally easy to achieve when the seal is unbroken, and optional adapters allow for easy combination wear with other types of personal protective equipment such as hard hats. Because ear muffs rest around the ear—not in the ear canal—they are ideal for use in grimy environments. However, despite their heftier design which may appear more protective, ear muffs generally do not deliver attenuation ratings as high as ear plugs. Therefore, care should be given to selecting ear muffs that meet the specific noise hazards on site.

Passive ear muffs
Passive ear muff models do not contain circuitry; they simply form a seal around the ear to protect the worker from noise. Ideally suited for day-to-day protection, they come in a wide variety of styles. And with options such as cap-mount, over-the-head and behind-the-neck wear, workers can find a secure solution that meets the rigors of their specific job. Basic styles start with economic options and progress to more specialized styles such as dielectric muffs, vital for utility workers and anyone exposed to electricity.

For construction and other rugged environments where ear muffs are worn long term, robust styles with enhanced sizing and adjustability features, soft ear cushion material and durable, padded headband material help deliver comfort all shift long. For safety managers requiring hands-free phone access, look for models with built-in boom mics and wireless Bluetooth compatibility. Passive solutions are also ideal for anyone wearing hearing aids in conjunction with hearing protection devices.

Electronic ear muffs
Electronic ear muffs are relied upon to block noise and manage sound in some of the world's most acoustically challenging environments. Using circuitry for electronic sound amplification, they enable workers to clearly hear their surroundings and important communications, such as alarms, warning signals, and co-workers' voices—all while suppressing hazardous noise. Depending on workers' needs, look for electronic solutions with high-fidelity sound, AM/FM, MP3, or Bluetooth compatibility.

Like ear plugs, it is important to offer workers a variety of ear muff models so they can try—and select—the style that works best for their unique head size and job application. Consider lightweight, streamlined solutions with advanced comfort and adjustability features to encourage compliance and all-day wear, and in low-light applications look for high visibility solutions that stand out. By putting the power of choice in your workers' hands, you can protect a lot more than just their hearing.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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