Hearing protection's human factor

February 9, 2009
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While hearing aid companies have developed innovative new products with more sophisticated technologies and greater miniaturization to better cater to hearing loss suffers, hearing protection companies have been relatively slow with innovative new product releases that address key human drivers related to workplace noise exposure. This trend needs to be reversed in order to achieve better outcomes for those exposed to noise in the workplace.

Too much hearing loss
OSHA estimates that 30 million workers in the U.S. are occupationally exposed to damaging noise. Despite growing awareness of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and compliance standards outlined by the OSHA Hearing Conservation Standard (1901.10), the incidence of hearing damage is still more prevalent than it should be. For hearing protection devices to work effectively, OSHA recommends that personal protective equipment be provided when workers are exposed to noise levels of 90dBA time weighted average for over 8 hours at a time. Further, if workers are exposed to higher noise levels, such as 115dBA, the exposure period comes down to 15 minutes or less.

Despite companies complying with OSHA standards, studies have shown that noise-exposed workers often do not consistently use hearing protection if the protectors:
  • Inhibit the wearer’s ability to communicate in high-noise environments;
  • Interfere with job performance and productivity by making certain sounds from machinery undetectable;
  • Interfere with the worker’s situational safety.
The human factor
Human factors continue to be major drivers as to whether a hearing conservation program will be successful. A good way forward is to ensure the points above are addressed by the hearing protection devices allocated to the workers.

A study conducted by a NIOSH researcher in 2001 — “Factors affecting the use of hearing protectors in a population of printing workers” — found that the top reason for not wearing hearing protection was that “it interfered with communication.”

Most hearing protection systems are passive in nature and therefore suppress all surrounding noise. It’s common practice for workers who need to communicate in high-noise environments to take off their protection to have conversations. These workers are exposing themselves to potential noise-induced hearing loss in order to communicate.

Communicate while protected
It makes sense that allowing communication without compromising the hearing protector is part of a successful hearing conversation strategy. When it is critical for workers to communicate in high-noise environments, compliance will be enhanced if hearing protection devices allow the wearer to hear speech without removing the device. This applies not only to face-to-face communication but also to workers using communication devices such as two-way radios and Bluetooth® cell phones.

Electronic earmuffs that connect to communication devices have been available for quite some time, but their capability to enable conversation in high noise has been limited. This limitation has been addressed by recent technologies that use smart algorithms to isolate speech from background noise. These technologies focus on isolating and enhancing speech at the same time as suppressing background noise to allow users to hear speech in high-noise environments.

The ability to conduct face-to-face communication around damaging noise levels opens up new communication possibilities. These “speech enhancement” technologies provide solutions for many work-related job functions such as training, plant tours, supervisory interactions and other critical communication needs.

Hearing on the job
Another reason why users may not consistently wear hearing protection devices is that they can interfere with job performance. The 2001 NIOSH study highlighted that when users were unable to hear certain machine sounds, they were less inclined to wear hearing protection. For many work-related functions, being able to hear is critically important to productivity and performance on the job. Therefore, the hearing protection device must allow users to hear critical sounds within their working environment. Hearing protection devices that suppress all noise to levels that inhibit situational awareness may protect the user, but if the user must remove the device to do his job, compliance is compromised. Devices should deliver a safe noise level of around 82dBa to allow the wearer to be more productive while working in high-noise environments.

Enabling situational awareness is also a necessary component of safety for those working in dangerous environments where moving objects have the potential to inflict serious injury. Although hearing loss is a serious long-term occupational health concern, workers and management are more concerned about minimizing serious injuries or fatalities that can happen in an instant.

Being able to communicate while wearing hearing protection is critical to compliance for many workers, but having situational awareness is absolutely necessary for all workers who are in dangerous environments. That’s why hearing protection devices that not only deliver the total communication solution but also enable situational awareness should provide a significant compliance incentive to workers.

The value of compliance
In traditionally high-noise industries, passive hearing protection solutions may not deliver the best result because workers may have good reasons for momentarily removing hearing protection or not wearing it properly. Removing a hearing protector for just 15 minutes can result in a 5dB reduction in its effectiveness. Even such seemingly small non-compliance acts can seriously affect noise exposure levels and the likelihood of NIHL, and ultimately the level of a company’s compensation claims. Smart hearing protection devices are not for every worker, but for many they are critical for efficient communication, heightened productivity and overall job safety.

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