Knowing where and when to integrate fit testing throughout your ongoing hearing conservation program (HCP) can help you maximize all your hearing conservation-related efforts — and prepare you for the EPA’s new definition of the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), which will represent a range of expected protection as opposed to a single-number estimate, to better reflect real-world protection levels. The new regulation is expected to be adopted in 2010.

Start your integration effort with these five key opportunity areas:

1 Train employees
A recent field attenuation study conducted on the performance of hearing protection devices found that individual, one-on-one training was the most significant factor in predicting good earplug performance.

Conducted on more than 100 workers at eight different facilities, the study showed that one third of workers achieved attenuation higher than the published NRR for their earplugs, and that another third achieved attenuation within 5 dB of those ratings. Only the lowest one-third of workers had attenuation that was more than 5 dB below published NRRs.1

The study found only one factor to be a consistent predictor of good fit: one-on-one training. The more often a worker had received individual training in the proper use of hearing protectors, the higher the probability of a good fit. The same was not true for group training.

No generalized rating scheme for hearing protection devices (HPDs) can be effective without knowing how much attenuation individual workers actually attain. If a safety manager were to supply earplugs based on the assumption that all earplugs only achieve half of their published attenuation in the field, then clearly two-thirds of the 100 workers in the study would be seriously overprotected, since they are achieving much higher protection than 50%. Fit testing of hearing protectors bridges the gap between laboratory estimates of attenuation and real-world attenuation achieved by workers as they normally wear their protectors.

Fit testing is a critical “benchmark” element to include in your new-hire safety training program prior to their entry to the workforce — to aid in both ensuring the proper selection of their HPD and in documenting their effectiveness. It provides a formal benchmark from which you can determine whether your employees are receiving optimal protection, require additional training on how to fit their earplugs, or need to try a different model.

Then, annually, use fit testing to meet OSHA requirements to provide annual training on the use and fit of hearing protectors. This not only provides the opportunity to conduct a complete fit test for each employee, but to review training — one-on- one — via video, demonstration, instruction or other methods to model proper fitting techniques.

2 Determine minimum attenuation levels
You can use fit testing to document exactly how much protection a worker receives with a given earplug, perhaps to meet mandatory attenuation levels in certain areas of an operation. Then, periodically (at least annually) conduct a follow-up fit test to review each employee’s earplug selection to determine if it is appropriate for noise exposure levels, comfort and/or job requirements.

Is each employee able to achieve the appropriate attenuation required for their area? If so, they may continue to use their current earplugs. If they are not able to achieve the appropriate attenuation, then re-train the worker on how to fit that earplug and re-test. Or, select a different earplug, train on fitting, and re-test.

3 Select protection
It’s important for employers to offer a well-rounded selection of earplugs (and earmuffs) to noise-exposed workers, but leaving the final selection to the discretion of the worker is not always the best strategy. In one fit test, when newly-hired employees were given the choice of several different earplugs, only one-third of them initially chose their best-protecting earplug.

In other words, for new employees, the “first choice” is often their “worst choice.”2 In selecting the appropriate HPDs, create a group of workers from different departments to evaluate current and trial earplugs. Periodically run this group through a fit testing program to determine if their earplugs provide proper attenuation for their noise exposure levels. Solicit hearing protector manufacturers for samples of new earplugs for trial. Based on your workers’ Personal Attenuation Ratings (PAR), select the earplugs that are appropriate to their noise levels, fitting ability and personal comfort. Re-test, using fit testing to confirm the selection is indeed the solution.

4 Protect workers “at risk”
Fit testing might not be feasible to administer on every noise-exposed worker in the facility, but it is certainly feasible — and an immensely useful tool — to employ where annual audiograms and follow-up evaluations have documented employees who have sustained a Standard Threshold Shift (STS) or have been identified as being “at-risk” of further hearing loss.

As part of the follow-up evaluation of STS employees, administer fit testing to ensure the proper selection and fit of their earplugs and to determine additional personalized hearing protector tactics they may require as STS/at-risk workers.

Utilize the opportunity as a teaching moment to review your available training options to model proper fitting techniques. Be sure to document each worker’s earplug fit and selection, and provide your report to the professional supervisor of the audiometric portion of your HCP (audiologist or physician) for the record.

5 Reinforce training at health & safety fairs
Health and safety fairs present an ideal opportunity to reinforce proper hearing conservation habits at work and at home. Bad behavior is often the leading cause of haring conservation program failure — on the job or at home. In one study, 60 days following fit testing using multiple earplugs, 80% of tested workers could recall the best-fitting earplug. Fit testing itself can provide employees with an all-important one-on-one opportunity for “sticky training” that can make a lasting, behavioral difference that will benefit both their quality of hearing and your ongoing HCP.3



References
1. B. Witt, Why Are Joe’s Earplugs Working? National Hearing Conservation Association, 2007 Conference, Savannah, GA
2. B. Witt, I Know, But Does It Matter? Fit Testing of Noise-Exposed Workers. National Hearing Conservation Association, 2008 Conference, Portland, OR
3. Ibid.