October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, part of the campaign by the American Academy of Audiology to raise public awareness about hearing protection. In the United States, hearing loss is the third-most common chronic physical condition among adults, after hypertension and arthritis. And as the CDC points out, once you’ve lost your hearing, you can’t get it back.
Roughly 2.2 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels on the job each year. Astoundingly, more than half of these workers — 53%, actually — report not wearing hearing protection.
Hearing loss tends to occur slowly over time, and workers may not realize they’re suffering hearing loss until it’s too late. It is important for workers and their employers to know what kinds of controls and hearing protectors are needed to safeguard everyone’s hearing.
And while our focus is of course going to be on occupational hearing protection, it is important to remember that noise hazards can occur in our everyday lives, so much of this information can be applied outside of jobsite situations as well.
Hearing Protection Regulations
OSHA requires a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels averaged over 8 working hours — or even less time when the average noise level is higher — and NIOSH says all employees who work in those conditions should wear hearing protectors.
Similar to many other safety standards, the construction industry has its own OSHA standards because of the noise produced by equipment commonly found at construction sites. But no matter what type of environment you find yourself working in, understanding the need for hearing protection is incredibly important.
Types of hearing protection
Whether or not you currently utilize hearing protection at the jobsite, you are probably familiar with the types of protection you can find. Below are the four general categories that offer different protection and comfort levels.
- Expandable foam plugs
- This is the most common type of earplugs you will find at the store. They are regularly used in non-working conditions, such as to combat the sound of snoring. Oftentimes, women or people with small ear canals have a hard time getting these plugs to appropriately fit.
- Pre-molded plugs
- These earplugs come in a wider variety of sizes and shapes, so it is more likely everyone can find a type that fits well, though it may take some trial and error. This style can be re-used because they are more durable than the expandable earplugs.
- Canal caps
- Instead of extending into the ear like traditional earplugs, this style only covers the entrance to the ear canal. The tips may be pre-molded or formable, but most versions are attached to bands or straps that can be worn over the head or around the neck for convenience.
- Likely the type most commonly seen on worksites, this type of ear protection blocks out noise by completely covering the ear. You can find some variety, such as low-profile muffs that have smaller ear cups, or types that include noise-canceling technology. It is important to know that people with heavy beards or sideburns, or those who wear glasses, may not find the best noise protection from earmuffs.
Not all types of hearing protection will be right for every employee. Remember the best hearing protector is the one that you find comfortable and convenient and that you will wear every time you are in an environment with hazardous noise.
Understand the Limits of Hearing Protection
One important aspect of any category of personal protective equipment (PPE) is understanding when it needs to be used. Conversely, employers and employees also need to recognize when PPE will not be useful or sufficient.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health leads a national initiative called Prevention through Design (PtD) in order to “prevent or reduce occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities through the inclusion of prevention considerations in all designs that impact workers.” Part of PtD is the hierarchy of hazard controls, which is promoted by numerous safety organizations.
The hierarchy of hazard controls consists of elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE. Here are examples of how to address hearing protection at every level:
- Elimination and substitution — Removing noisy equipment altogether or using quieter equipment
- Engineering controls — Making design changes to equipment, tools and work areas that remove or shield workers from noise hazards
- Administrative controls — Implementing changes to work procedures and policies to reduce the duration, frequency and severity of noise exposure
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) — Offering hearing protection that reduces the amount of noise that enters workers’ ears and protects hair cells inside ears
Keep in mind that, within the hierarchy of hazard controls, PPE is the least effective means of controlling hazards. However, it is often much easier to implement PPE and various types can be easily utilized in a number of workplace scenarios.
Worksites with sustained average noise exposures of 85 decibels may need to perform noise monitoring, conducted by a competent professional. Noise monitoring can be done in two ways: Area sampling is used for employees who stay in one area to perform their job, while personal sampling is used when employees must move from place to place to perform work duties. These two sampling methods can be performed on their own or in tandem.
There are two types of meters that measure sound. Sound level meters measure noise only when it happens, while noise dosimeters measure sound throughout the workday to calculate the average noise level. Noise dosimeters are small and can easily be attached to employees’ clothes.
Your company may also be required to perform audiograms to determine workers’ abilities to hear sounds at different levels or pitches. Employees who are assigned to work in hazardous noise areas should have an audiogram performed when they begin their employment and once every following year to track potential changes in their hearing. If employees are exposed to hazardous noise levels at any point, they should receive an audiogram within six months of their first exposure.
Employees are often subject to a wide variety of hazards on the jobsite but hearing loss might not be the first one that comes to mind. If employees are aware of occupational noise hazards, they will have an easier time preserving their hearing now and in the future.
SafetySkills offers a hearing conservation course that can help both employers and employees understand the noise hazards they may encounter while on the job and learn about how they can protect themselves against those hazards.