It’s become a well-accepted fact for most Americans — almost a rite of passage, in a way — that hearing loss is inevitable as we age. However, hearing loss isn’t just for the elderly. According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), hearing loss from noise is the most common occupational illness and the second most self-reported occupational illness for American workers. Thousands of workers every year continue to suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In fact, since 2004, BLS says nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss.
When it comes to addressing occupational hearing loss and prevention in the construction industry, one NIOSH presentation reveals a surprising statistic: The average 25-year-old carpenter has 50-year-old ears — a comparison that could potentially be applied to electrical workers. Although noise-induced hearing loss is preventable, once acquired, it’s permanent and irreversible. In conjunction with following the requirements listed in 29 CFR 1910.95, employers must first determine what noise levels their employees are being exposed to and then decide if a hearing conservation program is advisable. According to OSHA, basic elements of a hearing conservation plan include offering audiograms, training employees, and providing various types of hearing protection.
OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program
Geared toward small businesses, this program offers free and confidential advice on health and safety solutions with priority given to high-hazard work sites. Through this program, small- and medium-sized employers can obtain free advice on addressing noise hazards that is independent from OSHA’s enforcement efforts. On-site Consultation Program consultants, employed by state agencies or universities, work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing safety and health management systems. Visit www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html for more information.
Test Your Noise IQ
Approximately 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise on the job. To see just what level of noise certain objects and tools produce, visit the interactive NIOSH Sound Meter tool at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/abouthlp/noisemeter_html/hp105.html. Click on common items, such as a hand drill, and see just how much exposure you’re subjecting yourself to — and remember anything greater than 85 dB may cause hearing loss. For more specific information on the real-world noise level of commonly used power tools in occupational settings, check out the NIOSH Power Tools Database at wwwn.cdc.gov/niosh-sound-vibration/, which includes sound power levels, sound pressure level, and downloadable exposure files.
Jumbo disposable ear plugsThe Magid E2 IHP932J and IHP932CJ jumbo-sized disposable earplugs (available in corded and uncorded models), which feature a tapered design, are made from soft, hypoallergenic polyurethane foam. Packing a high noise reduction rating (NRR) of 32 dB, the earplugs offer the same features as the company’s other hearing protection products, only in a bigger size to accommodate individuals with larger, deeper ear canals. According to the company, the plugs’ bright, fluorescent orange color makes them easily seen during compliance checks, and the corded style’s bright red PVC cord keeps them close at hand while reducing loss and further enhancing visibility.
Magid Glove & Safety
Low-profile ear muffNow available in pink, the PM5010P low-profile ear muff offers soft foam ear cups that protect with a decibel rating of 31 dB. Featuring a comfortable fold-away headband that is padded and adjustable, this product is individually packaged and also comes in black.
Pyramex Safety Products
The Pilot push-in earplug for occupational hearing protection features a hybrid design that combines the performance and cost savings of the company’s Quiet multiple-use earplug with the comfort of its Max single-use earplug. Pilot inserts easily into the user’s ear with a simple fingertip twist of the non-obtrusive Navigation Stem for a quick, snug and comfortable fit. The product is made of polyurethane foam, which is resilient and easy-to-clean and adapts to the shape of the ear canal for a more comfortable fit. Featuring an NRR 26 rating, Pilot provides consistent hearing protection and ensures appropriate attenuation in medium to low noise environments (95 dB or less). These earplugs can also be used for up to several work days/shifts without impacting its overall performance and delivers an improved cost benefit for safety managers who need to manage tight PPE budgets.
Howard Leight/Sperian Hearing Protection
Earplugs and muffs
The company’s most popular hearing protector for use under protective headgear, the Model 805 V (pictured) is designed to be worn behind the head only. Offering excellent attenuation, the product’s wide foam filling seals the ear for maximum comfort. Its low-profile ear cups come in a light green color with durable black epoxy finish hardware. Offering over-the-head hearing protection, the company’s Model 10A provides the same features as Model 805 V plus a high-quality chrome-plated hardware and comfortable foam headband that adjusts for optimum fit.
David Clark Co.
Featuring a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 25, Twisters reusable earplugs are suitable for mid-range hearing protection applications. According to the company, the product’s triple-flange design forms a triple seal in any size ear, allowing wearers to hold the plug post and easily insert them into the ear without having to roll or touch the plug — helping to eliminate the chance of germs entering the ear. An air bubble tip helps make Twisters comfortable to wear, yet durable enough for long-term use. Made of high-quality, high-visibility purple silicone, they are available with an optional hi-viz orange cord.
Sidebar: Choosing Hearing Protection That’s Right for You
The best hearing protector is the one that is comfortable, convenient, and consistent — one that you’ll wear every time you’re in an environment with hazardous noise. Following are some of the most common choices when it comes to hearing protection.
Expandable foam plugs
These plugs are made of a formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each person’s ear canal. Roll the expandable plugs into a thin, crease-free cylinder. The final result should be a smooth tube thin enough so that about half the length will fit easily into your ear canal.
Pre-molded, reusable plugs
Pre-molded plugs, made from silicone, plastic, or rubber, are manufactured as either “one-size-fits-most” or are available in several sizes. Many pre-molded plugs are available in sizes for small, medium, or large ear canals. A critical tip about pre-molded plugs is that a person may need a different size plug for each ear. Directions for fitting each model of pre-molded plug may differ slightly depending on how many flanges they have and how the tip is shaped. Insert this type of plug by reaching over your head with one hand to pull up on your ear. Then use your other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion until you have sealed the ear canal.
Canal caps often resemble earplugs on a flexible plastic or metal band. The earplug tips of a canal cap may be a formable or pre-molded material. Some have headbands that can be worn over the head, behind the neck, or under the chin. Newer models have jointed bands increasing the ability to properly seal the earplug.
Earmuffs come in many models designed to fit most people. They work to block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Muffs can be “low profile” with small ear cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme noise. Some muffs also include electronic components to help users communicate or to block impulsive noises.
Source: Carol Merry Stephenson, Ph.D., National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health