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Trends in ... hearing protection

April 1, 2012

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Achieving the right fit

By Tracy Haas, editorial assistant

Once hearing has been damaged, it cannot come back. Fortunately, hearing loss is preventable, and technology is advancing to help better protect workers. “While not new, earplug fit testing is now at a tipping point,” Renee S. Bessette and Robert M. Ghent Jr. told Safety+Health in a joint email. Bessette is the global brand manager and Ghent is the research audiologist and acoustical test laboratory manager for Smithfield, RI-based Howard Leight/Honeywell Safety Products.

Bessette and Ghent said they see workers actually get excited about fit testing. “Like a cholesterol check or other medical tests, earplug fit testing gives each worker their own PAR (personal attenuation rating) to achieve, and the firm understanding of what a properly fit earplug feels like in each ear.”

Bessette and Ghent understand the importance of communicating in a high-noise environment while wearing hearing protection. “The ability to clearly hear and communicate with others in high-noise environments is often life-critical. The difference between hearing, ‘Get back!’ and ‘On track!’ can be the difference between life and death,” they said.

So what can employees do to best protect themselves while keeping communication open? “Traditional circumaural headset-style communication systems can provide only so much protection and often result in distorted vocal communication for the wearer,” they said. “New in-ear intelligent protection systems can deliver a higher level of protection and clear voice communications that can enable workers to be more efficient on the job.” In other words, products are available that can safely protect a worker without detracting from the job at hand.

But even with proper hearing protection employed, there is still the chance that it will not be used correctly. For example, with in-ear hearing protectors, “a deep insertion (around the second bend of the ear canal) is required of the eartips in order to achieve clear in-ear voice pick-up,” Bessette and Ghent said. “Without that deep insertion, the user will not achieve the full benefit of adequate hearing protection and clear vocal communication.”

One of the biggest obstacles with hearing protection that must be taken into account is the notion of comfort. If something does not fit or feel right in the ear, a worker simply is less likely to wear hearing protection properly – or at all. “What feels comfortable for Steve may be uncomfortable for Susan,” Bessette and Ghent pointed out. To counter the idea that one size fits all, “We advocate that companies offer a variety of earplug and earmuff models that not only suit the range of noise levels, but also the ease of fit and in-ear comfort for workers.”

When asked what is the most important thing a worker should consider in regard to hearing protection, Bessette and Ghent said it is up to the individual worker to look out for his or her best interest. “Safety managers and other professionals can provide the best training, the best equipment and the best support,” they said. “But if a worker doesn’t take that minute to insert their earplugs properly or don their earmuffs when exposed to hazardous noise, the hearing conservation program fails.” 

Coming next month…
Instruments and monitors

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