This article aims to recap basic information about hearing protection and how to help prevent long-term hearing loss. This is an important topic that should be reinforced in order to ensure workers are provided a comprehensive and efficient hearing protection products and programs. 

Work-related hearing loss is often caused by frequent exposure to loud noises and constant sounds. This type of hearing damage occurs slowly over the course of time, so while one may not notice any hearing loss presently, this doesn’t mean that one is safe from long-term effects in the future. For some people the impact of work-related hearing damage is constant and debilitating. To help address this problem, OSHA has issued requirements that employers must follow regarding hearing protection.

OSHA's occupational noise exposure guidelines are laid out under the standard 1910.95. These standards are not only important for remaining in compliance with the government regulations, but also for ensuring employees are given the correct hearing protection. 

Prolonged noise exposure guidelines

Most hearing protection is issued with an NRR rating, (Noise Reduction Rating). This is often called the attenuation rating, the measurement of the reduction of the amplitude of a noise. The NRR is a single standardized number assigned to hearing protection PPE in the United States. The current range of NRR extends from 0 to 33 decibels. The rating will look something like this, “NRR 32.” The numeric value of 32 is the number of decibels a hearing protection product prevents from entering the ear if properly worn.

Hearing protection alternatives

Different situations are best served by different types of hearing protection. When considering the alternatives, proper noise reduction and the ability to communicate need to be balanced with comfort and fit. The best, most effective hearing protection PPE is of little consequence if the workers aren’t wearing it.

There are inexpensive disposable options like foam earplugs that are very effective. Earplugs are accepted under the OSHA standard for environments on the low level of the attenuation scale. A conveniently located box of NRR 32 ear plugs is an affordable and convenient form of hearing protection for workers who enter and work in loud environments.   

Ear muffs are a more feature-rich form of hearing protection. This form of hearing protection is designed to fit over or around the wearers head and cover the ears fully. A properly fitting pair of earmuffs can provide a tremendous amount of protection since they stop the sound from entering the ear, rather than just the ear canal. There are many types of earmuffs and ranges of protection, so it is important that the right type is chosen for the right situation.

Hearing is extremely important for communication and situational awareness, especially in loud working environments. This is a key reason why “Active listening” ear muffs are gaining in popularity. Active listening earmuffs feature microphones on the outside and small speakers on the inside. These earmuffs can "listen" to the environment and permit those sounds that are at a safe volume. This makes it possible for workers to communicate in loud environments, while staying protected. The benefits of active listening technology far outweigh the additional cost in the long run. 

Active listening ear muff models equipped with Bluetooth® can connect to mobile devices to allow for phone calls or stream audio entertainment, without compromising the wearer’s ability to hear warning signals or communicate with those around them.

Notifications and testing

All of this is pointless if the employees aren’t receiving the proper information and training. OSHA mandates noise level monitoring on a regular basis. This monitoring information must be passed along to employees, so they understand the risks associated with the noise levels they encounter on the job site. 

Employers are required to provide free audiometric testing for employees that are exposed to noise levels for an extended period. Testing programs must establish a baseline for each employee and testing must occur as frequently as possible, so the proper action can be taken to address the problem. Hearing loss can impact your life on and off the job and is something you cannot reverse.