Workplace Solutions Hearing protection

Fit checking hearing protection

How does fit checking minimize the risk of hearing loss claims and help workers properly use hearing protection products?

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Responding is Garry G. Gordon, audiologist, E.A.R. Inc., Boulder, CO.

Traditionally, the verification of how well an ear protector (muff or plugs) attenuates has been conducted under laboratory standards that resulted in reporting a noise reduction rating. The resulting NRR score simply implied the expected attenuation when the product was properly installed at the time of use. Eventually, it was recognized that numerous end users weren’t achieving these values for a number of reasons, such as poor fit, improper insertion or lack of comfort. As a result, employees with significant threshold shifts were identified through audiometric evaluations and advised about better options and procedures to minimize the risk of further hearing loss or workers’ compensation.

For those who were concerned about how to improve the selection and use of hearing protectors, in addition to verification of real ear attenuation at the time of fit, a new science known as fit checking was introduced. Test results were reported with a personal attenuation rating, and, as with NRR, scores with higher PAR value had greater attenuation. However, in this case, the value was a real onsite score for the employee, not a score achieved in a laboratory.

From our 45-plus years of experience, we recently have witnessed more companies considering the inclusion of fit testing in addition to their required audiometric evaluations, but, in several cases, only for new hires and workers who may have demonstrated a threshold shift. This may be because of the time and expense to conduct such testing on all employees. Again, it comes down to time, money and necessity. Currently, fit testing isn’t a mandatory OSHA requirement. Many report that one of the biggest values for fit testing is educating employees on the proper use of hearing protection, in addition to minimizing the risk of overprotection.

Assessment in knowing whether to consider fit checking includes the following considerations:

  1. Knowing the actual PAR value will verify the performance of a product at the time of fit. It doesn’t verify whether the employee altered or modified its use while on the job.
  2. Fit testing can add to the value of an educational program and minimize the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
  3. Audiometric exams that have been properly conducted will verify an employee’s hearing status and can be used to address the value of a claim. A question that remains: Will the results of a fit test score be beneficial in minimizing or denying a claim?
  4. Who will do the testing? In addition to audiometric examinations, fit testing will add both time and expense. Several options are available for purchasing test equipment that is simple to use. Such testing can be conducted in house or, in some cases, by an outside service that includes audiometric testing.

The bottom line for considering the value of fit checking will be discovered during the assessment of time, expense and contribution to strengthen a hearing conservation program, in addition to minimizing the risk of unwanted claims. Although OSHA embraces new technology for certifying product performance, fit checking isn’t mandatory. However, in some parts of Europe, it’s required, so it behooves us to pay attention to see what complications and benefits such a requirement brings should it become part of our existing regulations.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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