Plant & Works Engineering
Hearing loss at work - still a cause for concern
Published:  09 March, 2018

Standards for protecting against hearing loss and infection need to be improved. PWE reports.

With an estimated 20,000 workers suffering from work-related hearing problems, according to figures published by the HSE, the issue of hearing loss from noise at work is still a cause of great concern, particularly for high risk sectors like industrial applications and construction.

According to Simon Ashton of safety specialist, Simon Safety, a Eurosafe member, there are a number of issues associated with hearing protection that are common place across many sectors. They relate to how hearing is validated and how people are trained to identify, use and care for the equipment that is going to best protect their hearing.

Simon explains: “Because there are no cross industry standard practices when it comes to protecting workers from noise, there is a real variance in how businesses approach the potential issue of workplace hearing loss. Where industry leaders like PX Group are using new science based hearing validation technology, others are still using the older ‘thumbs up can you hear this’ approach, with some businesses just handing out ear protection with no training or validation at all.

“The fact that we still have such a differential is very worrying, as hearing loss is not like other workplace injuries that can be treated or healed. For me there are fundamentally three ways of protecting people from high levels of noise, which is generally over 80dB.

“The first and most obvious is to try and engineer out, to dampen the noise itself, by improving the overall noise containment and barrier setup within an operation. However, this is not always possible, so for those high-risk areas you will always need to use either earplugs or ear defenders. In most cases this will come down to personal choice, but there will be certain applications that will be better suited to one type.

“With hundreds of different products on the market varying in quality and performance, it can be very difficult to ensure individuals are getting the right level of noise protection to prevent hearing loss. The first step to achieving this is to actually measure the noise levels that employees are exposed to, only then can you map out the different protection zones and types of noise levels you need to cater for based on specific applications.

“Once you know this information it is important to carrying out a hearing validation test based on this noise data and then select of the right hearing protection equipment, training the individual in the use, care, maintenance and when to replace the equipment. The final and probably most important stage is to timetable regular reviews of hearing validation and PPE equipment.”

Classic problems with ear protection use

“This simple approach helps to address some of the classic problems associated with the general lack of understanding of how to use and look after hearing protection. For example, foam earplugs have to be tightly rolled down and inserted into the ear correctly, so that when they expand they form the correct seal. Because everyone’s ear cavities are different and not straight, this is why individuals need to ensure they choose the right shape, size, form and material type of earplug that are best suited to them.

“In similar sense, the protection offered by ear defenders can be dramatically reduced if they are not fitted properly with the other PPE equipment that is used within the workplace. This is why ear protection training should be carried out when all PPE is worn together. This is particularly the case for safety glasses, as they change the shape of the ear or push ear defenders away from the ears, reducing protection.

Hygiene, damage and maintenance is a major issue

“I have seen some very interesting ear protection over the years, which has really shocked me. Regularly I will see ear defenders damaged or totally clogged with dirt and too often I even see mould growing inside them. The process of maintaining such important PPE is very simple and with modern defenders having replacement internal protective parts there is no excuse for poor hygiene or poorly maintained equipment.

Equally, when it comes to earplugs, because they are placed within the ear cavity, it is important that workers are given access to new plugs and are able to apply the protection in clean environments. Training is also key, as hygiene issues occur mostly when earplugs are replaced when in the noise environment if they become loose.

Protecting employees and businesses with science based hearing validation

“Hearing validation or hearing testing, is not only designed to protect the employee, but also to make sure the employer understands and documents the level of hearing capability of existing and importantly new employees.

“Typically, hearing validation systems have relied on subjectivity from the individual being tested. This works with a sound being played in a quiet environment and an individual who is wearing ear protection asked to indicate when they can hear the various pure tones of sound.

“Commonly known as the ‘thumbs up’ method, although it is a positive move using this subjective approach lacks clarity, can’t be measured and therefore recorded effectively. Not only does this put the end user at risk, it also has limited use in protecting the employer from future claims against hearing loss, whether that loss has occurred onsite or elsewhere.

“Having recently used the new 3M™E-A-Rfit™ Dual-Ear Validation system, which is based on science not subjectivity, these barriers to protecting hearing and safeguarding employees, as well as employers are removed. This is because the system works without any input from the employee. Using cloud based software, the system uses a speaker to produce sound and two double ended microphones (one for each ear) to measure the outside sound and the inner ear sound.

“This is achieved by connecting one end of the microphone to a test earplug, which is placed in the ear of the end user or an ear defender. Importantly the system is able to measure each ear, giving pass or fail data to the tester. This allows for the identification of the most appropriate ear protection and the relevant training in which to use it.

“We recently collaborated with PX Group, who is one of the first businesses in the UK to adopt this approach to hearing protection. It is tasked with running the Western Wood Energy Plant at Port Talbot, Wales, which generates enough electricity to power 10,000 homes, through the combustion of 160,000 tonnes of biomass per year.

“In order to do this, the plant shreds 80% virgin wood biomass material from sustainable forestry sources and up to 20% clean recycled wood biomass sourced from local suppliers. This material is fed into the furnace, producing steam, which in turn feed the onsite turbine, generating electricity.

“For PX Group it is the shredding, burning and generation phases of this process that create the most noise, which they need to protect employees from.”

Explaining the PX Group approach, SHE manager, Michael Derbyshire said: “The customers we work with demand world-class standards of safety and environmental control and this is why we continue to develop our industry leading approach to avoiding all cases of workplace ill health, injuries and incidents, including damage to the environment.

“By continuously challenging ourselves to improve the protection and training we give to our employees, we asked our long-term health and safety consultants and personal protective equipment suppliers, Simon Safety to investigate any new ear protection technology or solutions on the market. They were already providing ear protection for our team at Port Talbot, so understood our needs.

“They suggested we look at the new 3M E-A-Rfit Dual-Ear Validation system as a way of changing our approach to hearing protection training and validation. We then tested the equipment using trained Simon Safety staff and opted to purchase it and train our own SHE team to carry out the regular testing and training in-house.

“We have now validated and trained all of our staff onsite and have made hearing validation a key part of our overall H&S reporting system, with plans for regular updates to ensure the training and protection we have delivered is reinforced.

“We are also validating contractors that come onto site to work in the areas where we have identified noise protection requirements. Having successfully implemented the system on the Western Wood Energy Plant we are now looking at rolling it out to our other operational sites and facilities throughout the UK, all which have similar needs.”

Simon continues: “PX Group has developed a very robust process to hearing protection, which is leading the industry, in addition to hearing validation they also perform regular PPE audits, helping to reinforce the safety culture.

“So it is clear that by taking a fresh look at the new technology that is now available and following the simple steps it supports, that whatever industry you are in, you can deliver a much more robust approach to protecting your employees over the long-term.”

For further information on 3M hearing validation, download the iBook on the Apple store at or visit