Why Are Employees Not Wear Their Hearing Protection?

Did you know that four million workers go to work each day in damaging noise? Ten million people in the U.S. already have a noise-related hearing loss. In 2007, approximately 23,000 cases were reported of occupational hearing loss that was great enough to cause hearing impairment (and these are only the ones that get reported!).

As you can imagine, we are simply not doing enough to prevent hearing loss in America. Yes, we are giving earplugs and earmuffs to our employees, but getting employees to wear them when they need to might be another story.  Many factors affect low HPD (hearing protection device) usage:

  1. Lack of Comfort: Several studies have recommended that comfort be given more emphasis than NRR (noise reduction rating).  More comfort with subsequently greater worker acceptance (i.e., wear time) but less attenuation, may still give more overall protection versus high attenuation but less wear time!  Simply stated, getting the worker to wear the earplugs when they need to is more important that the rating on the product.
  2. Lack of Availability on the Jobsite: While this comment might be more relevant to a construction site, convenience is critical.  If HPDs are not readily available, workers are not likely to leave their job location to go find them.
  3. Lack of Training on Proper HPD Use: Training and the importance to workers of feeling that they can properly select and don HPDs is a critical factor in their decision to wear them.
  4. Over Attenuation: Many of our customers select HPDs solely on the basis of high NRR. However, many TWA (time weighted average) occupational noise exposures are 95 dBA or less.  An HPD that delivers 10 dB of actual attenuation will cover many exposures and reduce noise exposure to below 85 dB.  Just remember that ANSI suggests that attenuation below 70 dBA is considered “overprotection” that may needlessly interfere with speech communication or warning signals and should be avoided. It is best to shoot for a protected level of 75 – 80 dB (as long as you get the employee below 85 dB).
  5. Personal Selection: In some cases, our customers only provide one type of HPD to their employees. Any single product may overprotect some workers or be uncomfortable to others. Ear canal size and shape varies significantly from person to person. A protector that fits well for one person with good attenuation may be uncomfortable and perform poorly for the next person. OSHA even mentions in a Letter of Interpretation that a selection of HPDs should be available to employees.
  6. Fit Testing of an HPD: Last, but not least, I strongly believe in the importance of employee fit test documentation for any hearing protective device. Whether we use a fancy machine to conduct the earplug fit test or having a trainer observe the process, it is very important that all employees minimally demonstrate their ability to put their earplug in correctly (or earmuff onto their head!).  By documenting this, employees have no excuse as to not wearing their HPD out on the construction site or the factory floor. Management has documentation on the type of plug/muff that an employee was fitted with and signed off on. Now the employee is accountable!

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