Keeping workers properly protected from hazardous noise and motivated to wear their hearing protectors is a challenge for any safety manager. With proper training and ongoing encouragement, most workers do wear their earplugs or earmuffs on the job. However, there are always a few workers who feel compelled to raise objections to wearing their earplugs or earmuffs. Here are a few common objections workers raise to wearing hearing protection devices (HPDs), and some suggestions on how to combat them and perhaps even change those attitudes.

“I can’t communicate with my co-workers.”

In many jobs, the ability to communicate must be balanced with adequate protection from the hazardous noise. If we just automatically select the highest Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) for hearing protectors, we may be making it more difficult to communicate or hear warning alarms.

The ultimate irony of hearing protection is that, in order to prevent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), we must make ourselves temporarily deaf. People who complain that their hearing protectors isolate them from co-workers, announcements and signals have a tendency to remove their HPDs in order to communicate, thus increasing their exposure to hazardous noise. Removing protectors for even a few minutes can reduce the overall effectiveness of the HPD’s NRR by as much as 40 percent. This may also indicate that someone is overprotected and may need a lower attenuating protector.

The ideal hearing protector brings the hazardous noise levels to a manageable range of 70-85 dB, which allows users to still hear the sounds they need to hear. Offering hearing protectors with a range of NRRs allows people to select the protection most appropriate for their noise exposure. Hearing protectors that provide uniform attenuation may also be a practical remedy to this situation. Uniform attenuation protectors block out low and medium frequencies, while higher frequencies — which include speech, signals and alarms — can be heard more naturally and with less distortion.

“I don’t need them! I’m used to the noise.”

The ear cannot “get accustomed” to noise. Noise-induced hearing loss is progressive and permanent, and is caused by prolonged exposure to high volumes of noise at any frequency. In general, it is marked by a decline in hearing high frequencies and difficulty recognizing high-pitched sounds, including conversation, signals and alarms. If a worker has lost some hearing, wearing HPDs is more important than ever to prevent further loss.

The worker’s objection that he is used to the noise may be a sign that he has already experienced some hearing loss and may need an audiometric evaluation. It’s also a good idea to keep a basic sound-level meter on hand; if you show a worker the noise level on the spot, the raw data will help the message sink in.

“Hearing protectors are uncomfortable.”

Since earplugs are one of the only pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) worn inside the body, it should come as no surprise that discomfort is the primary factor in not wearing HPDs. Comfort complaints range from tightness or too much pressure in the ear canal, a feeling of stiffness, and difficulty inserting an earplug. Everyone’s ear canals are different in size and shape — even from left to right — so what’s comfortable for Steve may not work for Christine.

To improve personal comfort, people often compromise protection by not fully inserting their earplugs, “modifying” their shape or lubricating them with foreign substances. However, partial or improper insertion can reduce earplug attenuation to near zero. In addition, audiologists often notice more hearing loss in workers exposed to 85-95 dB who “cheat” on the fit and wear time of their earplugs than in those exposed to more dangerous 95-105 dB levels but who recognize the danger and wear their earplugs more consistently.

To ensure the best, most comfortable fit, offer workers a variety of HPDs that include different sizes, shapes, materials and attenuation levels to accommodate both personal preferences and specific applications. In addition, including workers in the selection process can boost worker acceptance and day-to-day compliance. Also, provide workers one-on-one insertion training.

“I don’t want to get the dirt from my hands in my ear.”

The likelihood of an earplug directly causing an ear infection is minimal. Ear infections are generally caused by a virus in the middle or inner ear, or an abrasion or cut in the ear canal that is aggravated by earplug insertion. Ears have a natural defense against foreign objects in the ear canal — cerumen, aka, earwax. Cerumen, along with the hair in your outer ear, traps dirt and other contaminants, and also hampers bacteria from growing in the outer ear.

For workers whose hands get dirty during the course of a day, multiple-use earplugs with stems, no-roll foam banded earplugs, or earmuffs can prevent the transfer of dirt and grease from fingers to earplugs.

“I forget to put them in.”

Of all common workplace safety risks, noise is perhaps the easiest to overlook. Noise-induced hearing loss is invisible, progressive and permanent — and thus, not always top-of-mind when we don our hardhats, safety eyewear, respirators and protective gloves to start our shift. Yet earplugs are also one of the easiest pieces of safety equipment to store in your pocket, tool case, apron, wear around your neck, or even tie to your hardhat for easy access.

Posting fitting instruction posters, noise thermometers, area noise level signs, and clearly visible earplug dispensers will help remind workers to protect themselves from hazardous noise. Safety managers walking through noisy areas should also carry earplugs to hand out to workers who are not properly protected, and publicly praise workers who are wearing them properly. Also, keeping your purchasing department in the loop can improve your hearing conservation program. An empty earplug dispenser helps no one and signals a less-than-effective program

“I can always get a hearing aid.”

A common misconception about hearing aids is that they restore hearing back to “normal.” While hearing aids can help people hear better, they are no substitute for normal hearing. Prescribed for people with mild to severe hearing loss, hearing aids amplify ambient sound, but they do not restore natural hearing, or even eliminate some background noises. Also, OSHA does not exempt workers with existing NIHL from wearing hearing protection in noisy areas; they, too, must don the appropriate HPDs when exposed to hazardous noise.

But this facetious objection to wearing HPDs is usually voiced by a macho younger worker who fails to understand the risks or appreciate his vulnerability. It often takes a “voice of experience” from an older worker to help this young man out, but it’s more likely that a more stern “wear them or else” approach will keep him protected on the job until time renders him a little wiser.

Addressing worker objections to HPD wear on-the-spot may take a few minutes, however down the line it will help save your worker’s hearing health — and possibly save your company thousands of dollars in compensation.