Sound Advice on Hearing Protection

Suzanna Marchant, SafeStart Writer and Researcher

hearing protectionOccupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the U.S. And yet, noise is often not taken as seriously as other workplace hazards.

In general, sounds above 85 decibels (dB) are harmful, depending on the length of exposure and hearing protection. But, most people don’t recognize how low the threshold for hearing damage is or that even lawnmowers and many other appliances, such as garbage disposals and blenders, can emit sounds louder than 80dB.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is usually a slow process with almost no noticeable symptoms, making it difficult to identify or consider its impact. As a result, permanent damage is often done by the time people notice that something is wrong with their hearing.

Although NIHL is permanent, it’s also preventable. This is why it’s important to provide employees with protective equipment and to teach them about prevention both on and off the job.

The First Step

Any workplace hearing protection program should start with a noise audit to determine the decibel level of common activities at a facility. Knowing which noise levels are dangerous (or borderline dangerous) is vital for the proper protection of employees. This will also help determine what type of noise-reducing equipment should be purchased and who will need hearing protection.

Once the audit is performed and all the information has been examined, a strategy should be developed to address the areas and employees affected by excessive noise. This should include preventative measures in the form of administrative and engineering solutions, as well as a hearing protection and conservation program, all of which are recommended by OSHA.

Tackling the Source

Preventative measures should focus on reducing or eliminating noise exposure, because achieving a difference of even a few decibels can lower the risk of hearing damage.

Fortunately, there are numerous engineering solutions available on the market, including low-noise machinery and noise barriers. Some noise-reduction solutions for conveyors, fans, hydraulic and other noises can provide a reduction of 10dB, which is significant, considering that the difference between a normal conversation and dangerous noise levels is 25dB.

In a large, open space, simply moving machinery or workstations away from each other can help reduce noise levels. Maintaining and lubricating machinery can also make a sizeable difference. And, restricting worker presence to a safe distance from noisy equipment can be a simple but effective solution to some unavoidable noises.

It’s also a good idea to create quiet—ideally, soundproof—areas where employees’ ears can rest.

Hearing Protection

When all possible organizational and engineering options are addressed, employers should move on to hearing protection devices (HPDs). It should be stressed that earmuffs, plugs and other HPDs are the last line of defense, and other protection efforts should be made first before relying on protective equipment.

If certain noises can’t be controlled at the source and hearing protection will be required, companies should avoid rushing out and ordering HPDs without proper research. Noise audit results should inform the choice of protective devices, and their type should depend on the duration and the amount of noise to which an employee is exposed. Sometimes a mix of different solutions can be a good idea, so it’s worth studying all the available options before committing to any of them.

One more thing to consider, in addition to research for appropriate HPDs, is to involve employees in choosing their styles and colors. When people feel involved, they are more likely to support and buy into safety initiatives. They may also be more likely to wear protective devices they find visually appealing.

Training

Simply handing out earmuffs is not enough to guarantee that they get used, used correctly, or looked after and maintained. Once the physical, administrative and engineering aspects of the workplace hazards are addressed, it’s time to focus on the employees.

HPDs should be accompanied by relevant, in-depth training. If done correctly, training can make workers realize the seriousness of loud noises and that neglecting to wear hearing protection or not using it properly will lead to serious hearing loss. The more they know and understand, the more likely they will be to care about it.

Workers should be very aware of the risks to their hearing and realize that their protective equipment is not optional. Unfortunately, there are always people who don’t think they need to follow the rules, so management should lead by example by attending all training sessions and always wearing hearing protection when it’s required. This signals to employees that the program is important and strongly supported.

It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to worker involvement and participation in safety programs, human factors can compromise even the best-planned initiatives. For example, workers are much more likely to ignore or forget to wear their HPD if they’re rushed, complacent or fatigued. Human factors training can help employees recognize and address the states that usually cause noncompliant actions.

This type of training will also contribute to a stronger safety culture, where employees look out for each other, and are comfortable enough to speak up when they notice a colleague not wearing their hearing protection.

Culture

In an unsupportive or uncaring culture, solid training and the right type of protection won’t be enough to eliminate noise-related injuries. It’s important to take a closer look at how the organization runs, if problems with HPD use persist. One of the first things to ask is whether management is leading by example, participating in training and wearing their HPDs. If they’re not, it’s a clear signal to the employees that the program is not that important after all.

Secondly, organizations should remember that shouting and intimidation might work short-term or when the manager is around, but it won’t make workers understand the importance of using their hearing protection. It’s certainly not a sign of a healthy and positive culture.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17% of workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year, so preventing it in the workplace should be among an organization’s top safety priorities. Buying hearing protection is not enough. A successful hearing protection program requires addressing engineering and organizational problems, human factors and culture, because they’re all involved in protecting workers’ hearing. WMHS

About the Author:

Suzanna Marchant is a Writer and Researcher for SafeStart, where, among other things, she creates content that makes OSHA rules and regulations easier to understand. She also regularly writes about human factors and 24/7 safety.