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Personal Protective Equipment: Prevent high cost of hearing loss in the workplace


Work-related hearing loss is a critical health and safety issue that affects about 25 per cent of the workforce, who are exposed to hazardous noise on the job. The good news is that occupational noise-induced hearing loss (ONIHL) is 100 per cent preventable when proper preventative measures are implemented as part of a workplace safety program.

In addition to the personal consequences of hearing loss, good hearing is vital to many aspects of worker safety and performance. It helps workers avoid accidents and reduces the likelihood of serious injury. Workers in high-noise environments typically lose more time from accidents and are less productive than those exposed to lower noise levels, according to studies cited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

ONIHL can result from one-time impulsive noise exposure or continuous, long-term exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels.

A person’s hearing can be protected by increasing awareness of decibel exposure in the workplace — the distance from the sound source and the duration of noise exposure. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers implement an ongoing hearing-conservation program whenever employee noise exposures equal or exceed an eight-hour, time-weighted average sound level of 85 decibels.

As part of workplace hearing-conservation programs, OSHA requires that employers first try to diminish noise in the workplace by implementing engineering or administrative controls to reduce employee exposures. If these controls aren’t effective, employees must also use hearing-protection devices to reduce exposure to safe levels.

Hearing-protection products and selection

Hearing protectors must adequately reduce the noise level for each employee’s work environment, according to OSHA. Most employers use the Noise Reduction Rating that represents the hearing protector’s ability to reduce noise under ideal laboratory conditions.

There are three common classifications of hearing protectors: earplugs, ear bands and earmuffs. All are designed to reduce the amount of sound before it enters the delicate regions of the inner ear where hearing damage can occur.

Earplugs fit in the outer ear canal and, when inserted properly, block sound from further entering the ear canal with an airtight seal. An earplug must be snugly fitted so that it seals the entire circumference of the ear canal and is available in a variety of materials, shapes, colours and duration of use (single use versus reusable). An improperly fitted, dirty or worn-out plug will not seal and can irritate the ear canal. Ear bands also fit in the outer ear canal, but are held in place with the tension of its band. In contrast, earmuffs fit over the entire outer ear and are typically held in place by an adjustable headband. Wearing earmuffs can sometimes be a challenge with other personal protection equipment (PPE), such as safety glasses or hard hats. Some of the newer hearing protection products, however, can be independently secured to the ear without these high-pressure bands and provide a comfortable secure fit.

When properly used, hearing-protection devices reduce noise to safer levels. These devices should be selected with a goal of reducing the environmental noise to safe levels as directed by OSHA and not to eliminate all sound entirely. This type of “overprotection” would be impractical as well as dangerous, because employees must be able to hear sounds to perform their jobs safely and effectively.

Comfort: a crucial component

Hearing protection is effective only when employers and employees understand how to appropriately select, wear and care for these items. According to the U.S. National Hearing Conservation Association, the most important factor in hearing-protector selection is finding a comfortable device that an employee will wear correctly 100 per cent of the time that he or she is exposed to harmful noise.

As with other forms of PPE, hearing-protection devices are continually evolving, as user comfort and ease of use take on greater importance. Some innovations include designs that block sound without intruding into the sensitive ear canal and are two-part systems consisting of a reusable ear clip chassis and removable foam ear pad. Many newer options are designed with an eye towards how they will work with other forms of head protection, such as safety eyewear, respirators, hard hats and hooded apparel.

Select hearing-protection products that are/will:

— Designed for easy insertion and removal;
— Flexible and conforming to the ear canal opening;
— Provide hygienic fit and seal inside the ear canal;
— Lightweight;
— Stay securely in place without relying upon placing pressure inside the ear canal; and
— Innovative, with reliable features for shift-long comfort.

Other important characteristics to consider include:

— Hygienic storage solutions for when devices are not in use;
— Hearing-protection options that are available with and without cords, to fit individual worker preferences; and
— Whether the hearing protection can be used in conjunction with other head-protection PPE.

Hearing is that unique sensory gift that allows us to appreciate the sounds that matter to us, whether in our personal lives or as we perform safely and effectively on the job. Successful occupational hearing conservation is defined by the cooperation between employers and employees, leadership support and broad acceptance across the workforce. A first step to facilitate endorsement and increase compliance is to make sure the hearing-protection products that are used are comfortable, easy to insert and remove and integrated with other forms of PPE.

Kelly Martin is an associate category manager with Kimberly-Clark Corporation in Irving, Texas. The company is headquartered in Neenah, Wisconsin.