Hearing Protection: Let’s Get Personal

Hearing Protection: Let’s Get Personal

Properly protecting workers’ hearing goes beyond simple hearing protection devices.

Excessive noise and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) are prevalent across industries, from manufacturing to construction and agriculture to oil and gas. More than 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year. In fact, NIHL is the most common permanent and preventable occupational injury. Unlike most injuries, it is difficult to tell when a person has been affected by NIHL because it is painless and progressive. NIHL can be caused by continuous or intermittent exposure to hazardous sound levels (usually considered to be ≥85 dBA), or by one-time high-intensity impulsive noise exposure. The effects on hearing are irreversible. However, experts agree that occupational NIHL can be reduced—even eliminated—when proper safety measures are implemented.

To help mitigate the risk of NIHL, employers must implement a comprehensive hearing loss prevention program (HLPP) whenever daily noise exposure levels average 85 dBA or more. A HLPP includes noise monitoring, annual audiometric screenings, training, proper recordkeeping and the provision of a variety of hearing protection devices (HPDs).

What are the Best Hearing Protection Devices?

There are many types of HPDs available for workers, and the appropriate ones should be chosen based on the noise level, jobsite and the individual. From earplugs to earmuffs, the options are abundant. Some of the factors to consider when selecting hearing protection include attenuation level, proper fit, hygiene, comfort, communication needs and compatibility with other PPE. Most importantly, workers must always be able to wear the protection when exposed to excessive noise levels.

To determine which HPDs may be appropriate for your worksite, you need to first accurately measure the noise levels present. This will help determine the level of attenuation required to adhere to current regulations. Most regions require that HPDs carry a label with an attenuation rating that indicates the level of protection workers can expect to achieve when the device is properly fit. The attenuation rating should be sufficient to reduce noise exposure to meet regional regulations and workplace policies. Most regions require that most industrial workers limit noise exposure to 85 dBA averaged over an 8-hour workday. For example, if noise levels in your workplace average 100 dBA, the attenuation rating should be at least 15 dB. However, the attenuation rating is only an estimate. The only way to know if a worker is getting enough protection is fit testing.

While we want the HPD to reduce harmful noise, we don’t want to eliminate all sound. Over-protection occurs when an HPD has more attenuation than is necessary for the situation. A worker who can’t hear a warning signal or communicate with co-workers is more likely to make mistakes, be injured or feel isolated on the job. In many workplaces, communication is vital to both safety and productivity, so workers can benefit from HPDs that allow communication and audibility of their surroundings.

The Importance of Personalization

A defining aspect of a successful hearing loss prevention program is personalization. We know every worker is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to hearing protection. HPD selection should be tailored to the needs of the user, and fit testing should be used to verify that the attenuation is appropriate for the work environment. One-on-one fit testing is integral to measuring—rather than guessing—the level of attenuation achieved by an individual’s HPD. In addition, most employers want to ensure their approach to hearing loss prevention is preserving their workers’ hearing on a long-term basis. Comfort and fit, coupled with a range of styles and sizes, aren’t the only things that are important anymore. Safety managers want data that can help them track patterns and identify problems early on so that hazardous situations can be remedied before negative consequences occur.

Technology is helping to take HPD personalization to the next level. Web and mobile app data services can wirelessly link to hearing protection, giving safety professionals actionable insights into workers’ noise exposure. This worker-specific data allows for personalization of hearing loss prevention solutions and allows employers to monitor workers’ noise exposure as it is occurring. This combination of smart or “connected” PPE and big data can be the next evolutionary step in occupational safety and health. Technologies such as automatic fit-testing and real-time noise monitoring may also help speed up the onboarding and training of workers while enhancing their protection. Furthermore, it will be possible to monitor personal sound exposure over time to avoid health problems caused by cumulative exposure.

With the number of remote workers increasing, it is more important to have a hearing solution that not only protects workers, but also gives safety managers in the command center the information they need. The data generated can help safety managers improve their companies' hearing loss prevention programs and develop a personalized approach to worker safety. Safety managers can gain real-time insights into noise exposure, monitor patterns, alert workers to daily noise limits and reduce time-consuming administrative and reporting procedures, all while keeping a safe distance.

Conclusion

The best hearing protector is the one that is worn comfortably and correctly 100 percent of the time, and we cannot forget the important role that personalization plays. Workers should be involved in the fitting process to help find the right HPD and take an active role in protecting their own hearing.

Enabling the proper selection of earplugs or earmuffs, offering various styles and sizes, monitoring sound exposures and protection levels regularly and training workers individually on how to achieve a personal fit for the greatest attenuation all contribute to a successful hearing conservation program that will keep workers safe from harmful noise.

While the hearing protection devices you provide may deliver high attenuation ratings and quality, noncompliance, improper fit and a reliance on lagging indicators all play a role in the ongoing struggle to adequately protect workers’ invaluable sense of hearing. By focusing on leading indicators and taking a personal approach to hearing loss prevention, we can help reduce the staggering number of workers affected by NIHL. That is a sound solution that workers, their families, friends and employers can all agree on.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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