Plant & Works Engineering
Listen up for hearing protection
Published:  04 August, 2016

The European Commission and European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) have launched the next stage in the Healthy Workplaces for All Ages campaign to promote sustainable work and healthy ageing from the start of working life [1]. PWE looks how employers can support the campaign by providing effective hearing protection, particularly for young workers.

The European workforce is ageing. As life expectancy increases, the retirement age will inevitably rise and people will be required to stay in employment longer. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work estimates that workers aged 55-64 will make up 30 percent of the workforce by 2030 in many European countries, representing a significant demographic shift [2] . Many older workers will have developed health issues over the course of their lives, which is why it’s so important that employers drive up occupational health standards to protect the long-term health of younger people entering the workplace.

One area where employers can make a positive impact is through effective hearing protection, which has been overlooked as an occupational health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasised the urgent need for action in a 2015 report, which identified occupational noise-induced hearing loss as the most commonly reported work-related injury globally [3]. What’s more, WHO estimates that 1.1 billion young people worldwide could be at risk of hearing damage due to unsafe listening practices [4].

Kjersti Rutlin, hearing conservation manager for Honeywell Industrial Safety in EMEA comments that a worrying trend, identified in the report, is that leisure noise exposure is contributing to hearing damage, which presents an additional challenge for employers on how to manage hearing protection for workers who already have some hearing loss. Unfortunately, the general population takes hearing for granted, which is why it is vital to build a culture that values hearing, especially among young workers. Hearing loss is often referred to as the hidden injury because other people may not see that a person has hearing damage. It’s essential therefore that people at a young age are educated on safe listening practices and the importance of effective hearing protection.

Rutlin says the best way employers can help is to make sure that workers are trained and educated on proper hearing protection practices, and that they undergo regular refresher training.

She continues by explaining that one-to-one training undoubtedly has the biggest impact on real attenuation levels for individual workers. For this to be truly effective, a second trained person needs to examine the ear and provide guidance on the correct size and shape of the ear canal and the correct technique for a proper and comfortable fit.

Interestingly, even workers that consider themselves experienced users of hearing protection don’t always fit earplugs correctly. It also doesn’t help that workers tend to use their hearing protection inconsistently, whether that is a conscious or unconscious decision. For example, Rutlin highlights that it’s very common to see workers remove the earmuff on one ear so that they can communicate with colleagues.

She says it would be advisable for all companies to provide four different types of earplug sizes (small, medium, large and X-large) as well as to conduct regular fit-testing. This shouldn’t normally take more than five to 10 minutes per person, but can really make the difference. An important point to add is that workers’ motivation and understanding of their own impact on hearing protection increases when they have gone through fit-testing and seen for themselves how much attenuation they get.

Rutlin explains: “Practical, interactive training sessions that require workers to participate in exercises and share experiences can go a long way in encouraging individuals to approach hearing protection more seriously. Providing workers with educational tools that will enable them to experience the importance of hearing and what they would potentially lose if they do not sufficiently protect themselves can engender positive behavioural change. WHO states that people tend to take more preventative actions when they have experienced the symptoms of hearing loss or tinnitus. Using audio files and videos to demonstrate the symptoms is one way to get this message across to workers so that they fully appreciate the consequences of damaging their hearing.

“One of the challenges we face is that many companies use the single number rating (SNR) value when providing hearing protection devices. A population based value, the SNR provides a very rough estimate of the potential attenuation that can be achieved from the device when used correctly. However, field studies show there is a significant difference in individual attenuation levels from the same earplugs. It really depends on how well the individual has fit their earplug.”

Norwegian service company, the Beerenberg Group, was undertaking maintenance work on offshore installations in the North Sea and did a fit-testing exercise on 288 of its workers in 2013. The results revealed that nearly 40% had less than 16 dB attenuation even though the earplugs used had SNR between 30-34 dB. After the service company’s HSE coordinators provided individual training using Honeywell’s VeriPRO Fit Testing System, this percentage was reduced to 3.6%, underlining the importance of fit-testing. A post-exercise questionnaire of participants was also carried out. Nearly 92% described the individual instruction in how to select and insert the earplug as useful or extremely useful while 77% reported that the training had resulted in increased awareness of effective hearing protection.

Rutlin says simply relying on SNR to determine the attenuation level from an earplug may mean that many workers do not have the protection levels they require: “With this in mind, Honeywell has developed an intelligent hearing protection system called QUIETPRO, which allows individual users and safety managers to control individual sound exposure levels. An automatic fit-test activates during the start-up and tells the user whether they have fitted their hearing protection correctly and monitors the individual’s continuous sound exposure. The system then alerts the user when the permissible sound exposure limit has been reached. As fitting earplugs will vary from day-to-day, even for trained users, the system verifies attenuation levels and prevents overexposure for the individual user every time.”

She added: “Technological solutions and effective training are vital but so too is regulatory change. For example, the EU Directive (89/668/EEC) states specifically when workers are required to wear hearing protection and employers should organise training for the proper use of hearing PPE. However, it doesn’t really state any detailed requirements on how that training should be provided or what it should incorporate.”

The PPE Directive was re-issued as a regulation in April 2016 and there is a two-year transition period to allow member states to prepare for the new requirements. One of the major changes is that hearing protection requirements have moved from category 2 to category 3 (the highest risk category), reflecting the fact that risks to hearing can cause irreversible damage to health. Rutlin warns that while it’s too early to say whether this status change will automatically result in employers taking hearing protection more seriously, it is clear that a fundamental rethink is required: “Unless companies adopt the measures described above, young people entering the workforce today face a real risk of irreversible hearing loss and living with that damage for decades to come.”

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