Going Beyond the Minimum with Hearing Conservation

March 21, 2007
Hearing loss is the Rodney Dangerfield of workplace hazards: It just doesn’t get any respect.

Even after many years of OSHA-regulated efforts to conserve hearing, and despite the ready availability of hearing protection devices (HPDs), rates of noise-induced hearing loss continue to rise. A recent National Health Interview Survey showed hearing problems among individuals age 45 to 64 up 26 percent over the past 30 years.

The World Health Organization has called work-related noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), “the No. 1 hidden disability in North America,” and in Washington, D.C., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims NIHL is the most common occupational illness in North America.

OSHA regulations call for worker training, but clearly more needs to be done in order to increase awareness of noise-related hazards. Here are some ways to take your hearing conservation program beyond the required regulatory minimums and help hearing conservation gain the respect it deserves.

Combat Complacency

Part of the reason hearing loss lacks respect as a disability is because (no pun intended) it is a silent affliction. Unlike other industrial disabilities, NIHL causes no pain or trauma, is accompanied by no visible wounds and is generally not noticed for several years. So, workers are unlikely to notice when their hearing is being affected, and few realize that once lost, their hearing cannot be regained. NIHL is permanent and irreversible.

Compounding the problem is the fact that we live in an increasingly noisy and noise-approving culture. From rock concerts and sporting events to booming car stereo systems, motorcycles and wrap-around, heart-pounding sound in movie theaters, we are conditioned to associate loud noise with recreation and celebration. Loud is good! And how often does an otherwise sensible and conscientious employee remove his or her hearing protection when they leave work, only to crank up their car stereo until the doors rattle?

They simply don’t realize, or don’t stop to think, that their favorite song blasting at over 100 dB can cause just as much damage to their hearing as an impact wrench or other noisy machine at work. When we leave work, we may leave behind our gloves, safety eyewear and hard hats, but noise is a constant factor in our lives, at home and at play.

Combating complacency involves changing worker mindsets and behavior. Workers have to be made aware of the problems of hazardous noise and then the message must be repeated forcefully enough to make the association automatic – until reaching for hearing protection becomes second nature both at work and at home, and until the hand that cranks up that stereo reaches back out and turns it down again.

One way to do this is to go beyond the minimum OSHA requirement for “monitoring” to help make noise “visible.” In addition to noise area monitoring, use a dosimeter to measure actual employee exposure and communicate results. Instead of small “Hearing Protection Required” or “Noise Hazard Area” signs, post noise maps of the area or facility in a common area, such as the locker room or cafeteria. Post decibel levels directly on equipment so employees can see their exposure levels while they are working. Place other motivational posters and noise thermometers on bulletin boards and in common areas to help educate employees about noise hazards in general, and keep the need for protection uppermost in their minds.

Train Individuals, Not Just Groups

Group training sessions and seminars are excellent ways to communicate the hearing conservation message. Training should include information on the effects of noise exposure; the selection, use and proper fit of HPDs; and the procedures for audiometric testing. Traditionally, audiologists, audiometric technicians or even videos are utilized in annual training.

But individuals actually must wear hearing protectors on the job (and off), and studies have shown that individual, one-on-one sessions are much more effective in actually modifying behavior. Including a record of an employee’s noise exposure both on and off the job in their personnel file can help an audiologist better understand the worker’s history when interpreting new audiograms, and few things get an employee’s attention faster than seeing a dip in their chart. A review of proper fit procedures during these sessions usually finds an attentive audience. Have the employee demonstrate earplug insertion prior to leaving the one-on-one session; this will reinforce proper fit.

Offer Choice in HPDs, Not Just Variety

OSHA requires that a “variety” of hearing protective devices – earplugs or earmuffs – be made available at no cost to workers who are exposed to an 8-hour TWA of 85 dB (85 dBA). HPD usage is mandatory for workers exposed to 90 dBA, but as extended exposure to noise at 85 dB also can be a factor in noise-induced hearing loss, it is good practice for all workers exposed to hazardous noise levels to wear HPDs.

But OSHA does not specify what constitutes a variety. People’s ears are different, as are the environments in which they work. Workers also are frequently required to wear other types of personal protective equipment. Thus, one earplug or earmuff style is unlikely to be suitable for all applications or even comfortable for the entire work force. And comfort is the No. 1 driver in HPD usage.

A wide range of HPDs is available today, including different materials and styles designed for specific applications and/or worker preferences. These range from dielectric and cap-mounted earmuffs to no-roll foam earplugs that facilitate communication and banded earplugs that can be quickly inserted during intermittent noise. Multiple-use as well as single-use earplugs are available, and earmuffs come in a wide range of configurations, including some that incorporate AM/FM radio or other audio input and even two-way communication.

To ensure the best possible range of products is available, enlist a team of employees from cross-section departments/job functions and demographics. Let them try a variety of different hearing protection products during their normal work shifts for a period of up to 2 weeks – manufacturers usually will offer free sample kits for this purpose – and keep note of their preferences. This type of empowerment will help ensure plant-wide buy-in and increase noise hazard awareness and usage compliance.

Check for Fit

The published noise reduction rating (NRR) of an HPD is a laboratory estimate of its effectiveness. But how well that protector actually performs is quite literally in the hands of your employees. Taking a few extra seconds to ensure a correct fit makes an earplug the best defense against hazardous noise, instead of a colorful fashion accessory stuck in a worker’s ear.

There can be a difference in attenuation between two fittings of the same earplug in the same worker’s ear on the same day. The difference is that a good insertion – i.e., when the earplug is deeply inserted and achieves a good seal in the ear – is enough to cause a 30+ dB improvement in attenuation. The worker with a bad fit may be lulled into a false sense of security when he detects a slight muffling of high-frequency sounds or when some of the edge is taken off shrill noise. But because poor fit has seriously compromised low-frequency protection, the effective overall protection is 0 dB!

Counsel supervisory staff to get in the habit of making a visual check of earplug insertion as part of their daily routine. This easily is done by having the employee look directly at you. For earplugs with a stem (a firm, protruding piece intended to be grasped by the user for insertion and removal), only the tip of the stem should be visible. For earplugs without stems (most roll-down, foam earplugs), the ends of the earplugs should not be visible. An earplug that is clearly visible from the front is a warning sign of poor insertion and should be re-inserted.

A good self-check is to test the acoustic seal of an earplug. The acoustic seal causes a very pronounced lowering of noise levels and it can be checked very easily. With earplugs inserted, cup your hands firmly over your ears for a few seconds in a noisy area and release. The earplugs should be blocking enough noise so that covering the ears with your hands results in no significant change in noise level.

Make HPDs Accessible

To increase hearing protector accessibility, install earplug dispensers at convenient locations where workers cannot help but notice them when they enter noise hazard areas, such as by the time clock and in the cafeteria, break rooms and locker rooms. Not only do dispensers make it easy to grab a pair of earplugs, they also make it more evident when supplies are running low and help to ensure consistent availability.
Also, include your purchasing department in the loop so they know when earplug supplies are running low and need to be re-ordered or additional earmuff hygiene kits are required for cushion replacement.

Send HPDs Home

By the same token, earplug dispensers should be mounted near exits and in common areas, and workers should be encouraged to take HPDs home. As noted above, damaging noise is damaging noise, no matter whether it’s at a rock concert – where levels have been measured at 120 dB – or from a jackhammer. A power lawnmower, for example, can emit 94 dB of sound, a motorcycle 105 dB and a chainsaw 118 dB.

As an employer, your liability for hearing loss compensation claims may or may not end at the factory door. Of the millions spent for compensation annually – and the resulting rise in insurance rates – no one really knows whether the hearing loss resulted from work or home. Going beyond OSHA minimums makes very good sense.

Renee Bessette, COHC, is a senior marketing/communication specialist for the Bacou-Dalloz Hearing Safety Group.

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