Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Hearing Protection

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Hearing Protection

Article excerpt

Hearing protection should be viewed like other types of personal protective equipment, said Mary McDaniel, MS, CCC-A. Proper fit and comfort are important if you want employees to wear it.

McDaniel is president of Pacific Hearing Conservation in Seattle and past-president of the National Hearing Conservation Association. She helps companies develop and promote hearing conservation programs in the workplace. She said that, while many companies have good programs, some are guilty of one of two sins: overprotecting workers or failing to follow through and enforce their hearing conservation program.

"The most crucial factor relating to the use of hearing protectors is that they are properly fitted. Properly fitting an ear plug is more than telling workers to pick them up in the box next to the time clock before they start their shift," said McDaniel.

According to her, the safety manager or the person in charge of the hearing conservation program needs to keep three things mind when determining what type of protection is best for employees:

* Have some employees already experienced hearing loss?

* What is the noise exposure? Is it the same throughout the facility, or do certain operations create a noisier environment?

* Do employees need to communicate or hear audible warning signals?

"Choosing hearing protectors based solely on noise reduction ratings (NRRs) doesn't necessarily give employees the best protection," said McDaniel. "Many companies seem to think if a little noise reduction is good, then a whole lot must be better. That's not the case."

McDaniel said that many companies, in their desire to protect employees, are actually overprotecting them and creating a new set of problems.

Employees who are in a relatively moderate noise level of 87 dB need to be protected to 85 dB (the OSHA action level) or less. According to McDaniel, that means hearing protection which offers an NRR of 2 dB is adequate for that situation.

"Hearing protection with an NRR of 15 to 17 is overprotection [in that situation]. When employees are overprotected, they can feel isolated. They can't relate to their environment. I guarantee those employees will pull out their hearing protection," said McDaniel.

She added that workers who have experienced hearing loss are probably already missing out on some high frequency sounds, since that range is the first affected. Most hearing protection blocks high frequency noise which, if the worker is overprotected, will serve to further isolate him or her. For those employees, McDaniel suggested some type of linear hearing protection, which filters noise across all frequencies.

Another pitfall which swallows some hearing conservation efforts is the desire of management or the purchasing department to provide one type of hearing protection. Said McDaniel, "We all know that one size does not fit all. Some companies want every employee to wear the same protection. They think if they provide the highest level of protection, then they are doing the best they can. They're not."

She suggested hiring a hearing conservation professional or audiologist to check employees' hearing and monitor noise levels for different operations in the facility. Some employees might work in areas which require hearing protection with greater NRRs, while others require less protection. For operations such as military maneuvers, airport baggage handling or maintenance or demolition jobs which have impulse noise (periodic, extremely loud noise), McDaniel suggested employees wear ear muffs in addition to their ear plugs to provide extra protection in high-noise situations. …

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