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Hearing Protection: Let’s Get Personal
Properly protecting workers’ hearing goes beyond simple hearing protection device.
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.1 In fact, NIHL is the most common permanent and preventable occupational injury.2 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.3 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 beforeanynegativeconsequencesoccur.
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
36 Occupational Health & Safety | MARCH 2021

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