man wearing hearing, vision and hand protection while working sanding next to saw

Hearing Protection: The Dangers of Non-Compliance

Hearing health is more important than you might think.

Many dangers in the workplace are hazards that cannot be seen. For instance, viruses, extreme hot or cold temperatures, toxic vapors and even noise can present issues in the workplace that could lead to minor or severe illness or injury. In this article, we are going to take a look into the widespread impact of noise: how hearing loss can impact an employee and how you can help workers find value in their hearing protection.  

In the U.S., hearing loss is the third-most common chronic physical condition among adults after hypertension and arthritis, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). About 12 percent of the working population has difficulty hearing, and of those, about 24 percent lost partial or all hearing as a result of occupational exposures. Even worse, about 8 percent of the working population suffers tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears.  

NIOSH estimates that 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise, which they consider as any noise that reaches 85 decibels or higher—or in simpler terms, if a person has to raise his or her voice to speak with someone three feet, or arm’s length, away.  

The Hearing Loss Impact  

Let’s first talk about why it is so important for hazardous noises to be addressed in the workplace and the risks that employers and safety professionals should ensure employees are aware of when it comes to their own hearing health.  

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, hearing loss can have a negative impact on your health and emotions. The most obvious side effect of hearing loss is the impact it has on a person’s mental health. A 2014 study from the National Council of Aging found that a loss in hearing correlates to an increase in depression in adults. Those who suffer from hearing loss have a tough time communicating with others, and that most likely will account for depression, frustration, anger and anxiety.  

Hearing loss has also been found to correlate to other physical ailments such as faster atrophy of the brain, gastrointestinal issues and even dementia.  

One of the most common side effects talked about in relation to hearing loss is social isolation. This is particularly hard to overcome in a work environment, especially when employees have to work together in pairs or teams. Social isolation can often result in disgruntled employees who lose sight of why safe work is so important. It could also lead them to quit their job altogether, decreasing the number of experienced workers in the field.  

It is important for safety professionals and employers to educate employees on the risks of hearing loss as this will help workers to better understand why their hearing protection is so important.  

Evaluating Your Workspace  

If you suspect that you have hazardous noise in your workplace, you’re probably right, but there are some ways to measure and record the workplace noise levels so that you can confidently explain to both the C-suite and employees that hearing protection is needed while they take care of their job duties.  

According to an article from our December 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety titled “Tackling Hearing Protection in the Workplace,” a noise survey will help to determine noise levels in the workplace as it relates to each employee. The survey should list employees and their exposure, then compare that exposure to the maximum permissible exposure limit.  

To be compliant with OSHA, hearing protection should be made available to employees that are exposed to noise levels above 85 decibels.  

To complete the noise survey, you must first monitor for hazardous noise. Noise monitoring is a great way to provide insights into the noise levels of a working environment, but it must be done correctly to provide accurate results.  

There are two kinds of equipment you can use to measure sound levels: a sound level meter and a noise dosimeter. The sound level meter is designed to be used by an operator who is looking to measure the overall sound levels of an area, machine or task, while the dosimeter is to be worn by an employee to level their noise exposure throughout their shift.  

To determine which piece of equipment you need, remember that OSHA 29 CFR 1910.95 says “where circumstances such as high worker mobility, significant variations in sound level, or a significant component of impulse noise make area monitoring generally inappropriate, the employer shall use representative personal sampling to comply with the monitoring requirements."  

For instance, you’d use a personal dosimeter for a forklift driver as it would be incredibly unsafe to follow them around with a sound level meter and the results would likely be very inaccurate.  

If it is determined that a noise survey should be conducted through the use of a personal noise dosimeter, there are ways to ensure accurate results. First, the dosimeter should be fully charged to operate throughout a worker’s shift. It should also be calibrated before and after use, and a windscreen should be affixed if the wind could interfere with accurate readings.  

One of the best ways to ensure accurate results is to measure exposure for a long period of time, meaning over the course of a workers’ shift for multiple working days. You can use the audio captured to understand noise level patterns and determine where the peaks are coming from. This will help down the line when you being to use engineering controls to reduce the amount of hazardous noise in your facility if possible.  

Implementing Hearing Protection  

Now that you’ve completed your assessment, determined that there are hazardous noise levels present and have filtered through engineering controls to try to reduce sound, you can start looking at hearing protection.  

There are a few things to keep in mind when looking for hearing protection for your employees. First, you need to be sure that the PPE is, in fact, adequate for the job. Ensure that any chosen hearing protection is compliant by calculating attenuation and ensuring that with the use of PPE, sound levels are under 85 decibels. NIOSH has published three methods for calculating the attenuation of hearing protectors, so check out the resource if needed.  

Even if you find the best hearing protection for the job, it will not be effective if workers do not wear them. Taking hearing protection off when in close proximity to hazardous noise levels can have an effect on the workers’ exposure and hearing health. To ensure that hearing protection is worn all shift, or when hazardous noise is present for a test, you must factor in the comfort levels of the PPE.  

Try to avoid “one-size-fits-all” solutions, as oftentimes they do not provide adequate protection for those who do not fit the PPE perfectly. Ensure that employees are properly fit with the hearing protection, or even offer the ability for them to have custom-made earplugs if that is something that can be used to reduce exposure to noise.  

Another thing you might want to think about is the relationship between hearing protection to other PPE a worker might be wearing on the job site or during their entire shift. Will the worker also need to don vision protection and head protection? Will there be a way for them to fit earmuff-like hearing protection on while also wearing these items?  

Luckily, technology has continued to evolve, and there are many options on the market now that combine many kinds of protection in one solution—such as a hard hat with attached hearing protection. If you use one of these two-in-one solutions, just be sure that both items of PPE are compliant with the standards for each kind of protection.  

Employee Buy-In  

To increase the probability of workers choosing to wear their hearing protection, OSHA suggests having a suitable selection of PPE available so that employees can make a choice as to what works best for them.  

Asking for the individual opinions of your workers might uncover some issues you didn’t know you needed to address—for instance, maybe one worker deals with chronic earaches and cannot have anything inserted into the ear.  

By taking the opinion of the employees into consideration, you are actively letting them know that you value their needs and desires to stay safe on the worksite. In the end, this is a great way to boost confidence in your safe work initiatives but also allows you to have clear communication with workers about why they should value the hearing protection they are given. When someone helps to build something (in this case, a solution of their own to protect their hearing), they tend to value that item more. This will work in your favor as you look to get employee buy-in.  

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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