When we read about the way technology is changing workplace health and safety, it's almost always innovations in safety management and employee and environmental monitoring. We talk about hearing protection far less, despite the fact that 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year, making it one of the top three chronic physical conditions affecting adults.

This is a problem, especially since nearly one in five young workers don’t use the recommended (or required) hearing protection at work. Cameron Mitchell, a consultant with Kasa Consulting, notes that part of the reason for this could be an attitude that “It’s not affecting me now, so why is it a big deal if I’m not wearing my hearing protection?”

But technology is making it easier than ever for workers – young ones included – to ensure their hearing is protected without compromising situational awareness or comfort. In this article, we’re going to explore how.

Hearing Protection Basics

While there are many injuries and illnesses that can be remedied, noise induced hearing loss isn’t one of them. Hearing damage is permanent and can have a serious personal and economic impact on workers, and causing this damage is much easier than you might think.

Brad Witt, a director of hearing conservation, explains that even though the brain grows accustomed to loud noise, the ears don’t. So when workers say that noise isn’t bothering them because they’re "used to it," that might be true for the brain, but the ears are still sustaining damage.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workers exposed to noises higher than 85 decibels (dBA) averaged over the course of 8 hours should wear protection for their ears. And as the noise level increases, the permissible exposure time decreases significantly.

To get an idea of what kind of noise level we’re talking about, consider the noise levels produced by these pieces of equipment:

  • Jackhammers: 105 dBA
  • Belt sanders: 93 dBA
  • Lawn mowers or leaf blowers: 90 dBA
  • Forklifts: 96 dBA

There are a variety of different jobs that may require hearing protection, but some of the most common ones (and their average daily noise exposure) include:

  • Carpenters: 85-107 dBA
  • Groundskeepers: 82-102 dBA
  • Music teachers: 84-91 dBA
  • Farmers: 85-90 dBA

(For more on noise and how to protect against it, see Hearing Protection PPE: Beyond the Basics.)

Technological Advances That Support Hearing Protection

When you ask employees to wear hearing protection, you’ll often get one of these objections:

  1. It interferes with on-the-job communication
  2. It doesn’t fit well (or it’s difficult to fit properly)
  3. It interferes with other PPE

Fortunately, advances in technology have resulted in hearing protection devices that address these issues. Hearing PPE can be comfortable and effective without getting in the way of situational awareness.

One of the key developments is the integration of hearing protection devices with communication and respiratory protection devices, which helps ensure that workers are able to communicate with each other without removing devices that protect them from environmental hazards.

One solution, for example, is a compact headset that fits inside the ear and can connect to two-way radio systems. It allows workers to hear and speak to colleagues and supervisors, and also enables them to layer full-face respirators, hoods, helmets, or hats over top without feeling uncomfortable. Bluetooth capabilities makes it simple to connect these types of devices to mobile phones, while level-dependent microphones ensures that workers can hear things like warning signals and conversations in the surrounding area.

(Learn about Radio Etiquette for Safe and Effective Communication.)

Some workers prefer earmuffs rather than in-ear protection, but these are often bulky and can interfere with other PPE, particularly hard hats. There are now new, slimmer earmuff styles that offer a better fit for use with helmets, face shields, and hard hats. Many of them come with built-in bluetooth technology to connect with mobile devices and facilitate communication on the worksite. They’re also geared toward specific noise exposures (low-moderate, moderate, high, very high), which ensures workers can get the appropriate hearing protection without accidentally tuning out what’s going on around them.

Hearing Protection: 3 Options to Consider

1. Fit Testing

Custom fit earplugs used to be a budget-buster and simply not accessible for most businesses. But new technologies have allowed companies a more affordable alternative to fitting employees with the right pair of earplugs.

Fit testing systems that provide a personal attenuation rating (PAR) for earplugs allow employers to measure the reduction of noise that a worker experiences with any given earplug and thus determine how appropriate it is for the worker’s environment.

2. Intelligent Hearing Protection

Most hearing protection devices are intended for constant noise levels, but workplaces rarely have consistently loud noise. Noise levels usually vary throughout the day and across work areas. This means that hearing protection may be adequate during some parts of the work shift, but overkill in others.

Intelligent hearing protectors provide appropriate passive hearing protection, but also detect ambient noise and automatically reduce impact and intermittent noises to safe levels. This protects workers without compromising their ability to hear what’s going on around them or requiring them to take off one earmuff to have a conversation.

3. Personal Sound Exposure Monitoring (PSEM)

This process helps determine the actual noise exposure for workers during the workday. These devices integrate a personal noise dosimeter into a hearing protection device and record the noise dose throughout the shift. They continue measuring both when being worn as hearing protection and not, meaning that they take into consideration ambient noise levels, too.

PSEM provides safety leaders specific data about the noise levels that workers are being exposed to (which may be different for everyone), and offers the ability to monitor them in real time throughout the day.

Final Words

Although it’s not always the most exciting topic, hearing protection is an essential part of an effective safety plan.

In the past, hearing protection choices were relatively scant. Determining exactly what was needed for each employee was difficult and costly. Now, the technology is such that even workplaces with more modest budgets can invest in things like fit testing, intelligent hearing protection devices, and sound exposure monitoring.

There’s no going back from hearing damage, so it’s critical that organizations implement effective measures to protect their employees now.

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