Tackling Hearing Protection in the Workplace
Despite the risk of irreversible damage to health, one-third of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection.
- By Tim Turney
- Dec 01, 2021
Noise-induced hearing loss is the most prevalent occupational disease in the world. In the U.S., 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year, placing them at risk of injuries that can permanently impair their quality of life. Whenever hearing is damaged from on-the-job conditions, workers are entitled to compensation. OSHA estimates that employers spend $242 million annually on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability.
Despite the risk of irreversible damage to health, one-third of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection. Although hearing protection is a ‘first aid’ measure until it is possible to reduce noise exposure to a safer level through changes to the tools, equipment and schedules used, knowledge of its application can dramatically increase its effectiveness.
Determining Who Needs Hearing Protection
A noise survey will determine which employees need hearing protection. The survey should list employees and their exposure, then compare their exposure to the maximum permissible exposure limit. In line with the OSHA regulations, hearing protection should be made available to employees exposed to noise dose levels above 85dB(A). The noise dose is based on the sound exposure level and duration, so for each increase 5-dB in noise levels, the duration of the exposure should be cut in half.
Noise monitoring provides accurate insights into the noise levels of a working environment so that businesses can identify at-risk employees and ensure they adhere to OSHA regulations. However, professionals undertaking the monitoring should be trained and prepared sufficiently with the right equipment as minor errors in noise level estimates can lead to major errors in exposure calculations.
Two pieces of equipment essential for the assessment are the sound level meter, primarily designed as a hand-held device used by an operator, and the noise dosimeter, which a staff member wears for their working shift. A sound level meter is an ideal solution for measuring the overall noise level of a task, piece of machinery or area. On the other hand, dosimeters are best for personal noise measurements where it is difficult or unsafe to get close to employees with a sound-level meter because dosimeters are smaller and body-mounted. For example, a dosimeter would be ideal for forklift truck drivers exposed to many different noise levels and irregular working patterns.
If an assessment establishes that noise levels pose a risk to workers, hearing protection should be supplied immediately while other more permanent solutions are implemented.
Selecting Hearing Protection
When selecting hearing protection, the attenuation level is key and noise levels at the ear must be reduced so that exposure is below 85dB(A) TWA. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has published three methods for calculating the attenuation of hearing protectors, but ensuring real world protection is essential by making sure people wear the protector for all of their shift. To encourage all-day wear, employers should consider five critical factors.
Comfort. Removing PPE, even for short periods, has a significant effect on exposure. Therefore, it is crucial that hearing protection is comfortable to increase worker acceptance and support the likelihood of all-day wear. Employers should avoid a “one size fits all” approach to hearing protection because the shape and size of the ear canal varies from person to person. A protector that fits well for one employee may overprotect some workers or be uncomfortable for others. OSHA recommends having a suitable selection of hearing protection available so that employees can make a choice that best supports their individual needs.
Custom-made plugs made from silicone and moulded to an individual’s ear offer the ultimate solution to maximize comfort. Although expensive to initially acquire, employees are more likely to take care of their “own” unique plug, increasing the product lifetime. In addition, the demonstration of care for individual safety can boost employee retention and productivity, as the more valued employees feel at work, the more engaged they are.
Relationship with Other PPE. The interaction of hearing protection with other PPE that may need to be worn is a significant factor. For example, an employee wearing prescription or safety glasses will not obtain an adequate fit from a standard ear muff, so plugs or semi-inserts may be more suitable. In working environments where hard hats are worn regularly, a hard hat with built-in hearing defenders should be considered.
Having a documented hearing protection “fit test” with other equipment worn on the job can increase the likelihood of selecting the appropriate hearing protection and increase employee accountability by minimizing justifications for removing protection at work.
Communication. Communication can be a major issue with PPE because the process of reducing sound, known as attenuation, can pose risks to worker health. If a protector with too little attenuation is used then employees will not receive enough protection. However, too much noise reduction can create feelings of isolation, and an employee may need to remove their PPE to communicate. In addition, over-attenuation can cut out safety warnings such as fire alarms or sirens from reversing vehicles, resulting in further risks to workers. As a general rule of thumb, businesses can avoid over-protecting workers by ensuring the level of exposure is not reduced to a level below 75dB(A).
The Environment. A business’ unique working environment also impacts the best protector choice. For example, hot, humid conditions can make earmuffs uncomfortable to wear, while dusty environments can cause hygiene problems. In dusty workplaces, it is crucial to keep the hands clean when inserting protective plugs to avoid ear infections.
The Individual. It is also advisable to consider the individual and ascertain any history of ear problems such as irritation or earache, as earmuffs that fit over the outer ear may be preferable to avoid medical complications. Other individual preferences such as hair and jewelry affect the choice of hearing protection. For example, long hair that flows over the ears will cause earmuffs to fit inadequately, significantly reducing the protection’s effectiveness.
It is important to look at a workplace from all angles to ensure the most effective hearing protection is selected. When you take into account all the elements mentioned in this article, the likelihood of workers developing a better relationship with their hearing protection increases. When workers are more likely to wear their PPE, they are more likely to walk away from the job healthy.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.