Can you hear me?

March 28, 2001
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While earplugs, canal caps, and earmuffs are used to protect against the majority of noise in the workplace, electronic or communication earmuffs are available for specialty uses and applications. They offer significant advantages over standard muffs in certain industries, and generally enhance worker efficiency and motivation.

Safety benefits

In general, with sound amplification, users of electronic muffs can easily communicate, yet still be protected from harmful noise, which is extremely helpful for hearing impaired people. While a traditional hearing protector can make them virtually deaf, a sound amplifying muff allows them to communicate. Electronic muffs also encourage increased wear time.

With communication muffs, the wearer can both hear their radio and transmit, allowing them to wear hearing protection in noisy areas — an important safety feature.

Electronic muffs give you the ability to communicate over long distances in combination with a cell phone or two-way radio. Today, manufacturers have an extensive knowledge of connective and adapter technology for the ever-increasing variety of two-way radios and mobile phones to make certain they function properly with communication muffs.

Let’s look at some specific advantages of various electronic muff models:

  • One model handles widely fluctuating noise levels, including impact noise. It provides impulse noise protection while maintaining ability to hear during periods of low-noise (below 85 dBA). As long as ambient sounds are below 80 dBA, they are amplified (maximum 18 dB) by a pair of microphones linked to an electronic circuit and speakers inside the earcup. This allows the wearer to hold a normal conversation in a variety of workplaces while being protected from the background or impulse noise. As soon as noise exceeds a safe level (warning alarm, siren, blasting, etc.), this type of electronic muff engages within 1/1000 of a second, limiting the sound amplification to 82dB. As soon as the noise abates, the electronic amplification resumes normally.

  • Another model is designed for environments where two-way communication is not possible without reducing noise. This model replaces the microphone and speaker in portable radios and has built-in dynamic receivers and gooseneck noise-canceling boom microphones.

  • A third type features built-in speakers and a flexible connection cord that allows users to plug into radios or one-way communication devices. Each earmuff comes with both a standard 3.5-mm stereo plug and a 1/4-in. adapter. Receivers have a built-in sound limit of 82 dBA for safe operation.

  • Other electronic muffs offer the best of both worlds, with built-in stereo radio receivers in each ear cup to provide hearing protection while allowing the wearer to listen to music.

  • And some models combine quality FM stereo reception with electronic impact and voice amplification in addition to two-way communication options. Stereo-sound amplification allows the user to identify warning signals while maintaining effective communication without removing the earmuff. Obviously, the stereo sound quality and ease of use make electronic or communication muffs an important option in hearing protection. Increased productivity, worker acceptance and improved safety balance the additional cost of electronic muffs.


Sidebar: Care & maintenance

As with other personal protective equipment, OSHA requires proper care for electronic muffs. Electronic muffs have removable cushions for ease of cleaning and replacement. Most manufacturers offer hygiene kits that include replacement cushions and foam inserts. Use only a mild soap or detergent to clean cushions and earmuff exteriors. Do not use alcohol or solvents. You may use a disinfectant such as benzalkonium chloride. Do not allow cleaners to contact the electronic circuitry or components.

Sidebar: Case study

Here’s how communication muffs are used at a southern paper mill making corrugated products. Typically in this type of operation, there is a wet and dry end to the line. Employees at either end of the line use two-way radios to communicate. Noise levels (100 dB on average) tend to be the greatest at the wet end. High sound pressure levels varying from low to high frequencies are found throughout the manufacturing process, which includes some six to eight high-voltage boxes (440 volts), spaced 40 feet apart. Communication is vital between employees at either end of the line, as well as at other stations, to avoid costly roll separations and downtime.

At this particular mill, employees relied on two-way radios and conventional disposable earplugs. Because they were required to literally shout into the chest-mounted, press-to-talk kits, they often “cheated” on the fit of the plugs, or removed them entirely when trying to communicate in higher noise environments. Plant management referred to the situation as being “intolerable.”

After trying several other methods, the mill’s midwest corporate headquarters purchased two different electronic muffs. The first muff, the Bilsom® 777-30, was provided with cable and adapter combinations specific to the two-way Motorola Spirit radios being used. These muffs were given to the workers on the dry end. Workers on the wet end were given the second model, the Bilsom WorkCom Pro, which required no cables or adapters because it has radios built in to the headset.

This solution enabled all users to communicate with each other based on frequency settings of the WorkCom Pro, which matched those offered by the two-way radio. Employees now communicate clearly and without interference from anywhere on the plant site.

Sidebar: Hearing loss & aging

By Lynn Lehman, Au.D., Doctor of Audiology

Much has been done to protect the nine million industrial workers exposed to high levels of noise in the workplace, but some types of hearing loss, especially hearing loss due to aging, are unavoidable. But you can help improve the quality of life for these individuals by urging them to receive professional care. This can help them communicate better with family and co-workers and increase their worker productivity.

Quality of life

Most hearing loss goes undetected and untreated. In fact, only 20 percent of those with hearing loss receive professional assistance. And not only does untreated hearing loss affect the individuals, but also the lives of those around them.

A recent study by the National Council on Aging documented the effects of untreated hearing loss among adults 50 years and older. Nearly half of the respondents were hearing aid users who reported improvement in their overall quality of life because of their hearing aids. Compared with non-hearing aid users, individuals who wore hearing aids reported better relationships with their families, greater independence, and improved social life.

Interestingly, family members consistently reported greater improvements than did the hearing aid users themselves. More than 80 percent of the family members reported that hearing aids significantly improved the lives of users.

Professional help

Employers, as well as family members, friends, and healthcare professionals, should encourage those who might suffer from hearing loss to seek appropriate evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment by an audiologist, a licensed professional with advanced training in this area. The American Academy of Audiology recommends a comprehensive hearing assessment by an audiologist prior to purchase of a hearing aid.

No two people have the same hearing loss or communication needs. But recent technological advances such as computer-programmable and fully digital hearing aids allow audiologists to precisely match an individual’s hearing requirements.

Hearing aid use on the job should be encouraged if accurate speech understanding and effective communication are required, and if the employee does not work in an area of hazardous noise.

Lynn Lehman, Au.D., audiologist, is Doctor of Audiology, Audiology Associates of Spartanburg, Spartanburg, S.C. She can be reached at (864) 583-7644; Llehman@aol.com.

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