Hearing Protection in the Workplace

hearing-protection-requiredHearing loss is one of the most common, but least talked about hazards in the workplace. With up to 60% of people being affected by some level of hearing loss due to their jobs, this is not a problem that employers should be ignoring. The fact that protecting employees from hearing loss is so simple should help to encourage employers to take the necessary steps to help keep everyone’s hearing safe.

Identifying Risks to Hearing Loss

For most employers the biggest risk to the hearing of people in a facility will be loud noises. The level of noise that can cause permanent hearing damage varies based on a number of factors, but the most significant is the number of decibels (dB) of the sound. Experts generally agree that hearing damage can begin with sounds as low as 85dB, when exposed to them for a sustained period of time. To give some perspective, here are some common sounds and their estimated dB levels:

  • Normal Conversation – 55dB
  • Hair Dryer – 70dB
  • City Traffic – 85dB
  • Lawnmower – 90dB
  • Riding a Farm Tractor – 97dB
  • Power Saw – 110dB
  • Jet Plane Takeoff – 140dB

While the risk of hearing damage starts at around 85dB, that doesn’t mean damage begins immediately at that level. With noise levels between 85 and 100dB, it takes prolonged exposure to cause the damage. For example, it takes about four hours of exposure to have hearing loss from 88dB of noise. For each three dB the noise goes up, the length of exposure time is cut in half. So, if it takes 4 hours to cause damage at 88dB, it will only take 2 hours at 91dB, 1 hour at 94dB and a half hour at 98.

When measuring the length of time people are exposed to noise, it is important to take into account whether the noise is continuous, intermittent, or impulsive. Continuous noise, such as a piece of machinery that is always running, can be very dangerous because people learn to ignore the sound, even though it can be causing damage. Intermittent noise, such as the use of a power tool for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, also presents risks, because people think it won’t cause damage since they are exposed for so short a time. Finally, impulsive noise, such as a gunshot, lasts for one second or less, and is dangerous because there is little to no time to prepare for the noise.

Once the levels get above 100dB, it can cause damage with even brief exposure, which is why it is so important to have hearing protection available in any areas where this may be possible. It is much better to be over protective when it comes to hearing, because the noise levels can often jump up quite quickly, and employees may not have sufficient time to get hearing protection in place.

Types of Hearing Loss

In order to make informed decisions on what types of things should be done to protect people’s hearing, it is important to know about the different types of hearing loss. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, there are three types of hearing loss:

Hearing loss can be categorized by which part of the auditory system is damaged. There are three basic types of hearing loss: conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, and mixed hearing loss.

-American Speech-Language-Hearing Association – Hearing Disorders

While these three types of hearing loss can have similar symptoms, they are typically caused by different things, for example:

  • Conductive Hearing Loss – This type of hearing loss is often caused by medical problems including fluid in the middle ear, an ear infection, allergies or even tumors. This type of hearing loss is normally not caused by loud noises, and can be cured with medication or surgery.
  • Sensorineural Hearing Loss – This is the type of hearing loss that can be caused by exposure to loud noises. It can also come from aging, head trauma, drugs or even genetics. Unfortunately, this type of hearing loss is typically permanent, and can’t be fixed with medication or surgery.
  • Mixed Hearing Loss – As the name implies, this is when the cause of hearing loss is partially from conductive and partly from sensorineural causes. Typically there will be problems with both the inner ear and either the outer or middle part of the ear. It is sometimes possible to get some improvement with medication or surgery, but complete hearing restoration is often not possible.

With the understanding of what types of hearing loss exist, employers should focus on the areas where they can have the most direct effect. This means either reducing the level of noise in the workplace, or providing employees with hearing protection, and requiring them to use it.

Another thing many employers will offer is regularly scheduled hearing tests for the employees. These tests can help to identify when hearing loss is beginning, so steps can be taken to minimize it. In most cases, hearing tests can be done quite quickly, and inexpensively. Bringing in an audiologist to perform the tests right at the workplace can allow everyone to get tested, with minimal interruption of work. There are several benefits to annual hearing tests for both the employees and the employers:

  • Importance – Regular tests show everyone that this is an important risk that they need to take seriously. Employees will often note that if the facility is investing in these tests, there must be a real risk, so they will be more likely to wear the hearing protection.
  • Identification – Identifying hearing loss as early as possible can help to keep the damage from getting worse. Whether the hearing loss is conductive, sensorineural, or a mix, it is always best to catch the problems early on. This allows everyone involved to have more options when it comes to preventing further damage, and possibly reversing that which was already done.
  • Tracking – For employers, it is often helpful to be able to track exactly when any hearing damage is taking place. This can be helpful in the event an employee attempts to sue for the hearing damage in the future, and it will also show that all possible steps were being taken to protect the employee’s hearing.
  • Trends – When employers are able to track when people are experiencing hearing loss, they can often spot trends. This can be useful in making changes in the hearing protection policies of the facility. For example, if people begin having hearing loss after working in a specific area, that can be an indication that the noise levels are higher in that area. Steps can be taken to provide better hearing protection, or to reduce the noise levels in that part of the facility.

Of course, every company will enjoy different benefits from providing regularly scheduled hearing tests to their employees. Finding out what types of improvements a facility can achieve with this information should be a goal of the employer when having these tests performed.

Beyond Hearing Loss

While hearing loss is the most immediate and long lasting hazard associated with working with loud noises, there are other factors to consider as well. Studies have shown that constant exposure to loud noises can actually have an impact on the physical and psychological stresses to the body. People tend to become more irritable when working in loud areas without hearing protection. This may be because the brain has to constantly process the sounds that are coming in, which mean it is working harder than it normally would.

In addition, with loud noises, the body may react to the fact that it is being damaged, which will raise a variety of stress factors. When the ear is damaged due to noise, the body needs to take action to attempt to repair it, or protect it from further damage. This can, over time, cause fatigue and other stress-related problems. While hearing loss is the most obvious and direct problem, it is certainly not the only thing people need to be concerned about.

Hearing Protection Training

Another important way employers can help to keep the hearing of their employees safe is by providing training. This training should help to inform employees about the risks, and show them how exposure to loud noises can cause irreversible damage to their ears and hearing. There are many different types of training options available. Employers can put together a live presentation and have everyone attend, or require employees to attend a class about hearing loss.

hearing-conservation-DVDOne popular training option for employers today is the Hearing Conservation Training Video, which provides a short program on DVD, which employees can watch. This program comes with many benefits, including the fact that it provides valuable information on the different causes and symptoms of hearing loss. In addition, this DVD training includes audiometric hearing tests, which employees can take to test their hearing. This is an excellent alternative to bringing in an audiologist to the facility to perform these tests.

In addition to the testing portion of this DVD training course, it also provides a great introduction to what people need to know about keeping their hearing safe. This includes the anatomy of the ear, how sound works, the impacts of sounds on the ear, and much more. The entire DVD runs just 18 minutes, but it packs a lot of great information into that time. The brief run time makes it an ideal course for facilities that want to keep their employee’s hearing safe, but can’t spend a full day running training classes.

Types of Hearing Protection

It doesn’t matter how much training or education you provide to the employees, if the right tools aren’t provided to keep their hearing safe as well. The most popular, and effective, types of hearing protection are broken down into two main categories. First are ear plugs, and the next are earmuffs. Both of these two options work in similar ways, by helping to keep the loud noises from entering the ear in the first place.

Earplugs are typically made from foam or PVC, and fit directly into the ear. In most cases they are pinched down, and then placed into the ear where they will then expand so they fit snuggly. The plug serves to stop the bulk of the sound waves from being able to enter into the ear. The result is sound that is much more muffled, and safer for the year. There are positives and negatives to earplugs, such as:

  • Positives – Earplugs are very effective at reducing the sound levels, and providing great protection in most any situation. They are also very inexpensive, so people typically just use them once and then throw them away. There are also many different designs and styles available depending on the specific needs of the situation.
  • Negatives – For many people, earplugs can be uncomfortable, which may mean they don’t wear them when they should. If they aren’t put in properly, earplugs can fall out or allow noise to enter the ear, which can cause damage. The biggest complaint about earplugs, however, is the fact that all sounds are very muffled. If working with other people, it can be difficult to hear them through the plugs. There are some limitations on the levels of noise that can be drowned out, so for extremely loud situations, earplugs might not be enough.

Earmuffs work in a similar way, but they are placed on the outside of the ear, covering it completely to block out the sound. Due to the fact that they are much larger, there are many additional options available when using earmuffs. The materials used can be adjusted to help block out more, or less, sound based on the specific requirements. For advanced earmuffs, it is possible to have sounds like voices picked up and amplified into the ear, while still blocking the damaging noises in the area. Of course, there are positives and negatives about earmuffs as well, such as:

  • Positives – Many people find these to be more comfortable than earplugs. There are also many different designs, so finding one that fits properly and provides good protection shouldn’t be difficult. The advanced options can be safer since they allow voices to be heard clearly, even in loud areas. High-end earmuff style protection can provide excellent protection, even with extremely loud noises.
  • Negatives – Earmuffs can be more expensive, depending on the style used. They can also be seen as unattractive by some, which may be a concern in some areas. For people with a lot of hair, the earmuffs may not sit tightly enough to the ear to reduce the sounds properly.

Finding which options will give the results that are needed may take some trial and error. In many facilities, however, employers will simply provide access to both earmuffs and earplugs and allow the employees to choose which one they prefer. In most situations, it doesn’t matter which one is chosen, as long as they are used properly.

Hearing Protection and You

While hearing loss is certainly a significant concern in the workplace, there are many resources available to help minimize damage. In most cases, it is extremely easy to prevent hearing loss by simply following the recommended steps for keeping the ears safe. Whether this means using hearing protection like earplugs, installing safety signs to communicate that hearing protection is required (like this one), or it means finding ways to reduce the overall noise levels in the facility, it shouldn’t be hard to ensure everyone’s ears are safe at work.

Given the fact that most work facilities are constantly changing and modernizing, however, it is important to keep all hearing protection policies up to date as well. Any changes that are made to a facility, such as adding new machinery or using different tools, should be evaluated for its impact on the noise levels before it is completed. If the total noise levels are going to be going up to dangerous levels, it is essential that employees are kept safe, and use hearing protection.

Once a facility has the proper safety policies in place, it is not difficult to keep them up to date and effective over the years. For many facilities, hearing protection is a low-cost, high-return investment into the overall safety of the facility, the employees, and anyone else who comes into the area. With a little bit of planning, training and a small investment into any necessary hearing protection equipment, it is easy to keep everyone’s hearing protected.

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