Protecting workers with hearing loss
A growing number of workers wear hearing aids, such as behind-the-ear or in-canal models, that can’t be used with foam earplugs. What does OSHA allow, and what actually works to mask most noise but allow conversations with earplug-wearing co-workers?
Responding is Jackie DiFrancesco, BA, COHC, deputy manager, Howard Leight Acoustical Testing Lab, Honeywell, San Diego.
Workers with hearing loss may have difficulty communicating over background noise, especially when they also must wear hearing protection. There are no specific regulations for this population, but these workers are subject to the same OSHA requirements as workers with normal hearing. OSHA does offer some guidance, suggesting that workers with hearing loss may benefit from hearing protection that is enhanced for better communication.
Several hearing protectors can enhance audibility without compromising safety. Some of these enhanced options include passive uniform-attenuation hearing protectors, active level-dependent hearing protectors and the combination of passive earmuffs worn over hearing aids.
Uniform-attenuation (also called “flat” attenuation) hearing protectors are designed to provide relatively uniform attenuation of sound at all frequencies. Conventional hearing protectors attenuate more high-frequency energy, where important speech information resides. Hearing protectors with a uniform response can make speech sound more clear and natural. Workers, including those with hearing loss, may find communication easier with these types of products.
Active hearing protectors (also known as electronic earmuffs with sound amplification/high noise suppression) require a power source. Most are level-dependent, meaning they amplify low-level sounds while limiting high-level sounds so they don’t exceed a specified level (usually 82 dBA). These products have been shown to improve speech communication for individuals with hearing loss.1 Some active hearing protectors also incorporate communication features and can connect to other devices. This type of connection can benefit someone with hearing loss because the attenuation properties of the hearing protector will still limit the noise while transmitting only the wanted communication.
Hearing aids, earmuffs
The use of hearings aids in noisy work settings should be approached with caution. Hearing aids should never be worn in noisy environments without the addition of a protective earmuff. Research shows that wearing a passive earmuff over a hearing aid can improve communication for workers with hearing loss, while maintaining safe noise exposure levels.2 Wearing a passive uniform-attenuation earmuff over hearing aids may offer even more improvement by transmitting more of those high-frequency speech sounds. Workers with hearing aids should see their audiologist to optimize the use of their hearing aids with an appropriate hearing protector.
Workers with hearing loss have unique communication needs, and their hearing protection should be tailored to their job demands, noise environment, hearing loss and individual preferences. Finding the right solution can help maintain communication, safety and satisfaction at work, while protecting the worker’s hearing.
- Giguère, C., Laroche, C., & Vaillancourt, V. (2015). The interaction of hearing loss and level-dependent hearing protection on speech recognition in noise. International Journal of Audiology, 54 (sup1), S9-S18.
- Verbsky, B. L. (2002). Effects of conventional passive earmuffs, uniformly attenuating passive earmuffs, and hearing aids on speech intelligibility in noise. PhD Dissertation. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University.