How Smart PPE for Hearing Protection Improves Hearing Conservation Program Performance  

How Smart PPE for Hearing Protection Improves Hearing Conservation Program Performance  

Noise-induced hearing loss results in irreversible and serious impact to a person’s quality of life and overall health. 

Occupational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (ONIHL) continues to be a problem despite nearly four decades of regulation per the Hearing Conservation Amendment to OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.95.

We already know that noise-induced hearing loss results in irreversible and serious impact to a person’s quality of life and overall health.  From decreased hearing acuity and problems communicating with family, friends and coworkers - to tinnitus and even a proven link between hearing loss and dementia—occupational hearing loss is a compensable injury with high costs to the employer as well as the affected worker.  

With 14,500 Hearing Loss cases documented in 2019 by private industry the U.S. alone—accounting for 11.4 percent of all private industry illnesses as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—it’s fair to say there is still significant room for improvement in the performance of many Hearing Conservation Programs (HCPs).

Hearing Loss from workplace exposure has decreased as a percentage of total injuries in the past ten years—by over a third—perhaps reflecting the shift from manufacturing jobs to other types of work, plus the diligent efforts of safety pros to eliminate noise sources and better protect any workers remaining in high noise environments. While it is trending in the right direction, the real costs to society and the economy remain substantial. 

Let’s take a look at the reasons this preventable injury continues to plague workers in private industry, the public sector and military—despite the hard work of so many dedicated Safety Professionals and others charged with managing an effective HCP. Then, we’ll examine how the introduction of Smart PPE and new types of Hearing Protectors (HPDs) can totally change the game.  

Components of an Effective Hearing Conservation Program 

From NIOSH Publication 96-100, “PREVENTING OCCUPATIONAL HEARING LOSS - A PRACTICAL GUIDE,” key elements of any HCP should include:  

  • Hearing Loss Prevention Program Audit
  • Monitoring for Hearing Hazards
  • Engineering and Administrative Controls
  • Audiometric Evaluation
  • Personal Hearing Protection Devices
  • Education and Motivation
  • Record Keeping
  • Program Evaluation

Got Noise? Starting with a simple audit to determine if a program needs to be implemented, all noise sources are identified and evaluated for potential risk. Presence of any Ototoxic substances on premises should be identified.

Ok, it’s Noisy – now what?  Hearing Conservation Programs are required by law for employers with workers exposed to 50 percent noise dose or more. This is required of all employers with even a single employee working in any role that exposes them to an average of >85 decibels of noise in an eight hour work shift – on any given day. And therein lies one of the many challenges of implementing and managing an effective HCP.

Measuring the Risk. Monitoring noise levels in the workplace has been ongoing from the 1970s yet nearly 15,000 workers per year are injured from noise exposure. This should seem strange, as once the noise has been identified as hazardous, an employer could use any of the thousands of noise control products, materials and PPE (Earplugs, ‘Muffs’, etc.) to protect workers from hearing loss. Yet the nature of noise exposure sampling has inherent limitations in determining the actual risk to each worker on any given day.

Engineering and Administrative Controls. As with any safety hazard, using the Hierarchy of Controls is the standard ‘go-to’ playbook—eliminate the noisy machine and replace it with a quieter one or build an enclosure out of sound damping materials to contain the noise. If that’s not possible, then limiting the time-on-task for noisy operations is your Administrative Control alternative. Looking at the modest gains in preventing hearing loss over the years, it would seem these methods have had some impact—yet so many are still at risk.

Audiometric Evaluation. Audiometric exams are performed annually per OSHA 1910.95 when a worker is included in any HCP. This determines if hearing loss is occurring and at what rate, if any. A well protected noise-exposed worker would show only minimal effects from aging (presbycusis). Noise-induced hearing loss displays a distinct and different pattern. But hearing tests are ‘lagging indicators,’ capable only of showing damage that has already occurred.

Personal Hearing Protection Devices (aka HPDs)

HPDs are PPE for the ears. They come in two basic types, ‘passive’—think simple earplug or muff—or active, like noise cancelling headsets. These come in many shapes, sizes and forms and innovations continue. Many forms and sizes exist because every person’s ears are different and any HPD must fit properly to do the job – even the smallest gap in fit between the earplug and the ear canal greatly diminishes the amount of noise reduction provided, despite the high NRR (Noise Reduction Rating) printed on the box.

The most important innovation in the history of Hearing Protection Devices is the result of the same technology impacting all parts of our lives—IoT, or the Internet of Things—resulting in what’s called Smart PPE for hearing loss prevention. In a moment we’ll tie it all together to illustrate the multiple ways ‘Smart PPE for your ears’ addresses the shortcomings of any Hearing Conservation Program.

Education and Motivation, Record Keeping and Program Evaluation

Workers who understand the importance of wearing their earplugs or muffs are far more likely to use them in high noise areas—they’re motivated to protect their hearing. Yet, they may not always know when to use them, especially where noise is highly intermittent but extreme, such as construction and demolition. Records are kept, proving that workers have been given hearing tests, trained in proper use of PPE and what type of PPE they may use, plus what the measured noise exposure levels were. At the end of it all, the HCP itself should be reviewed and evaluated for effectiveness.

So, if all these elements were put in place decades ago to eradicate ONIHL from the workplace, why are there so many Hearing Loss compensation claims?

The answer lies in the limitations of current methodology resulting in an HCP which ‘ticks all the boxes’ but still doesn’t stop hearing loss. Much of the disconnect is because it’s nearly impossible to integrate the constituent parts of an HCP into actionable information that drives individual behavior on the job, in real time.

How Smart PPE Changes Everything

New approaches to HPD design include the ability to measure the level of noise actually reaching the eardrum, deep inside the ear canal, using a sensor into the hearing protector itself, resulting in dramatic improvements of the outcome. Here’s why:

Traditional noise measurements using a noise dosimeter or sound level meter are conducted a few times per year and often, not on every exposed worker. These measurements are required by OSHA and this will not change anytime soon. So while you may measure the noise near the ear at 93db(A) in a particular location and advise the worker to wear their HPDs, you can’t always confirm they have been worn consistently every day, or worn properly. Remember, even a small leak or the removal of an HPD for even a few minutes to talk on the phone, eat, etc. allows dangerous levels of energy to damage the ear.

Smart PPE overcomes this by assessing the sound level continuously throughout the shift, measuring potentially damaging sound energy where it actually counts—in the ear itself, under the HPD. Plus, it’s can determine if the HPD is providing enough protection, which can vary greatly from person to person, day to day, depending on how it is worn.

Versions of hearing protectors that measure decibels under the muff or plug have been on the market for some time and continue to grow in popularity. To date, none have been able to provide real-time feedback to the wearer. Newer ‘Gen 2.0’ Smart PPE for hearing protection will address this by delivering actionable insight to each worker.

Imagine you’re using Smart PPE/HPDs so they can alert when you’re in noise so loud your earplugs are no longer protecting you—you’ll know right away to go for the ‘double protection’ and put muffs on to prevent damage. Maybe you’re working in a noisy area that’s not as extreme but end up working longer than expected—Smart HPDs alert when you’re approaching your daily noise dose allotment. Smart HPDs empower workers to take action BEFORE increased risk of hearing loss. Education and motivation are important considerations for a truly effective HCP—and Smart HPDs support both.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a Hearing Conservation Program manager – tasked with making sure everyone is trained and motivated (a once a year ‘lunch & learn’…again?) plus taking OSHA compliant noise measurements on a regular basis. Yet, you know the noise today is different than yesterday when the plant was running full tilt and a repair crew was using a jackhammer near the lunch patio, and you don’t know if the worker had their earplugs in - and if they did were they sealing correctly? These things happen every day, sometimes at a plant near you. You hope you got a ‘representative noise sample’ when you hung a dosimeter on them but did you? And are they really putting HPD’s in every time they’re supposed to?

Smart PPE addresses those issues by empowering Program Managers, Supervisors and others responsible for ensuring safety protocols are followed, and no injury occurs. By sending alerts to supervisors via text or email, they can educate and support proper PPE use as needed.

Hearing loss can take years of exposure to create a compensable injury and those years are made up of individual daily decisions workers and managers can make to prevent tinnitus and hearing loss.

Everyone benefits from injury prevention. That’s why Smart PPE is changing the way Hearing Conservation will be practiced in the new world of advanced safety technology.     

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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