Toolbox Topic: Hearing Protection
Hearing protection is essential as hearing loss affects millions of people every day. In this episode, we will discuss ways you can protect yourself from dangers in the workplace that can lead to hearing loss.
According to the World Health Organization, hearing loss is a person who is not able to hear as well as someone with normal hearing – hearing thresholds of 20 dB or better in both ears – is said to have hearing loss. Hearing loss may be mild, moderate, severe, or profound. It can affect one ear or both ears and leads to difficulty in hearing conversational speech or loud sounds.
‘Hard of hearing’ refers to people with hearing loss ranging from mild to severe. People who are hard of hearing usually communicate through spoken language and often use hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices, as well as closed captioning.
In simpler terms, hearing impairment, deafness, or hearing loss refers to the total or partial inability to hear sounds.
We know more than ever about hearing and hearing impairment, but the history of hearing impairment has not been well documented. Humans have suffered from hearing loss since the beginning of time, but we have very few records. So how far back can we trace hearing loss?
Evidence from the Past
Discovered at an archaeological site in Iraqi Kurdistan, skeletal evidence indicates impaired hearing dating back 10,000 years. Examining skeletal remains is a challenge because it’s limited to one type of hearing loss, conductive hearing loss, which is caused by obstructions in the ear. These obstructions prevent sound from traveling to the inner ear. This is often the result of damage from foreign objects, abnormal bone growths, or tumors.
In 1550 BC, the Egyptians described hearing loss in one of the oldest medical documents. They were one of the first civilizations to collect and document information on dyes, medicinal plants, etc., as we discussed in the Hazcom episode, this documentation was a precursor to our modern SDS or Safety Data Sheets.
The Ebers Papyrus contained information and hundreds of remedies to treat pain, illness, and disease. There was also a remedy for an “ear that hears badly.” It consisted of olive oil, red lead, bat wings, goat urine, and ant eggs! Very strange!
In Greece, in 350 BC, there were references to sign language. Plato wrote, “‘if we had no voice or tongue, and wished to make things clear to one another, should we not try, as mute people actually do, to make signs with our hands and head and person generally?”
In Spain during the 1500s, a Monk named Benedictine Ponce de Leon started the first school for the deaf. He developed and taught his student’s sign language.
In the 1600s, ear trumpets were devices created to increase hearing. It would take several hundred years before these devices were more commonly used.
The Development of Hearing Aids
The Telephone was invented in 1876. The telephone provided the technology to produce the first electronic hearing aid in 1898. This electronic hearing aid was not very portable. It was so large it had to sit on a desk. In 1920, the first portable hearing aid was created.
Some famous people who have suffered hearing loss:
Captain Kirk… William Shatner
And Lou Ferrigno, The OG incredible HULK!
Statistics on Hearing Protection
Hearing loss results in an estimated $242 million in workers’ compensation payments every year.
NIOSH estimates that 30 million U.S. workers are exposed to noise levels high enough to cause irreversible hearing loss.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20,000 workplace hearing loss cases occur every year, many resulting in permanent hearing loss.
53% of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection.
Approximately 12% of all workers have difficulty hearing.
About 8% of all workers have tinnitus.
However, there is some good news! The adjusted risk for all industries combined has decreased by 46% over 25 years (1986-2010).
Hearing Protection Safety Tips
Safety Tip#1 Know the Risks
Overexposure to noise can occur quickly from short exposure to very loud noise. If you ever leave work hearing a whooshing noise or ringing that goes away after a few hours, then it’s likely you’ve been overexposed.
If you have to shout in someone’s ear for them to hear you, it’s very likely that the noise levels in that work area exceed the exposure limit. There are apps for your smartphone that will test for sound levels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a Sound Level Meter App available for download on your iPhone. Although not scientific, this can be a good starting point.
Safety Tip #2 A Formalized Program
OSHA requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above an average of 85 decibels over eight working hours or an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA).
If your organization requires a formalized Hearing Conservation Program. It should include the following:
- A scientific noise analysis to determine areas with noise levels that exceed 85 dB..
- If possible, engineering controls to eliminate or reduce excessive noise levels
- A requirement for proper personal protective equipment, i.e., hearing protection
- Baseline and annual hearing tests (audiograms) on all employees if determined areas exceed 90dB
Safety Tip #3 Implement Engineering Controls
Always implement engineering controls first. Sound barriers, noise dampening systems, and enclosures can all reduce noise levels.
Safety Tip #4 Administrative Control
Limiting exposure times can reduce the hazard. Employees should rotate, take breaks, and adhere to strict time limits to minimize noise exposure.
Safety Tip #5 PPE
PPE is the last line of defense. Err on the side of caution here. If noise levels are borderline 85 Db, wear hearing protection. Remember, hearing loss is permanent and totally preventable.