The World Health Organisation identifies noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) as the most common permanent and preventable injury in the world.
A European-wide campaign to promote healthy and safe working conditions, together with the new PPE Regulation (EU) 2016/425, provide an excellent opportunity to raise the status of hearing protection in the workplace.
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and the European Commission’s 2016-2017 campaign Healthy Workplaces for All Ages [Safety Management is a media partner] makes it clear that safe and healthy working conditions throughout the entire working life are good for workers, business and society as a whole.
The message is especially important because a significant demographic shift is under way. The European workforce is ageing and as the retirement age rises, people will work for longer, with EU-OSHA estimating that workers aged 55-64 will make up 30% of the workforce by 2030 in many European countries.
Unfortunately, many will have developed significant health issues over the course of their working lives, which is why employers need to be more proactive in protecting the long-term health of younger people entering the workplace. Effective hearing protection is a case in point.
The WHO estimates that 1.1 billion young people worldwide could be at risk of hearing damage due to unsafe listening practices. Leisure noise exposure is a major contributor to hearing damage, thereby posing a significant challenge for employers on how to manage hearing protection for workers who already have some hearing loss. This underlines the importance of building a culture that truly values hearing and emphasising safe listening practices from a young age.
Employers, however, have a vital role to play to ensure workers are properly educated about the risks to their health and to provide effective training, backed up by regular refreshers, to help prevent irreparable and irreversible hearing damage.
One-to-one training has the biggest impact on real attenuation levels for individual workers. For this to be truly effective, a second trained person needs to examine the ear and provide guidance on the correct size and shape of the ear canal and the correct technique for a proper and comfortable fit.
Interestingly, even workers that consider themselves experienced users of hearing protection don’t always fit earplugs correctly. It also doesn’t help that workers tend to use their hearing protection inconsistently, whether that is a conscious or unconscious decision. It’s not uncommon to see workers remove the earmuff on one ear so that they can communicate with colleagues.
All companies should provide at least four different types of earplug sizes (small, medium, large and X-large) as well as to conduct regular fit-testing. This shouldn’t normally take more than five to 10 minutes per person, but can have a really positive impact. It’s also clear that the workers’ own motivation and understanding of their impact on hearing protection increases once they have gone through fit-testing and seen how much attenuation they get.
Practical, interactive training sessions that require workers to participate in exercises and share experiences will help encourage individuals to approach hearing protection more seriously. Providing workers with educational tools that will enable them to experience the importance of hearing and what they would potentially lose if they do not sufficiently protect themselves can engender positive behavioural change.
The WHO states that people tend to take more preventative actions when they have experienced the symptoms of hearing loss or tinnitus. Using audio files and videos to demonstrate the symptoms is one way to get this message across to workers so that they fully appreciate the consequences of damaging their hearing.
Single number rating
One of the most common industry methods for measuring real-world attenuation on workers wearing earplugs is the single number rating (SNR), which is a population-based value that provides a very rough estimate of the potential attenuation value that can be achieved from hearing protection devices when they are used correctly. However, its effectiveness really depends on how well the individual has fit their earplug.
For example, Norwegian service company the Beerenberg Group was undertaking maintenance work on offshore installations in the North Sea and did a fit-testing exercise on 288 of its workers in 2013. The results revealed that nearly 40% of them had less than 16 dB attenuation even though the earplugs used had SNR between 30-34 dB. After the service company’s HSE coordinators provided individual training using a fit testing system, this percentage was reduced to 3.6%, underlining the importance of fit-testing. A post-exercise questionnaire of participants was also carried out. Nearly 92 per cent described the individual instruction in how to select and insert the earplug as useful or extremely useful while 77 per cent reported that the training had resulted in increased awareness of effective hearing protection.
Simply relying on SNR to determine the attenuation level from an earplug may mean that many workers do not have the protection levels they require. With this in mind, some of the latest intelligent hearing protection systems allow individual users and safety managers to control individual sound exposure levels. An automatic fit-test activates during the start-up and tells the user whether they have fitted their hearing protection correctly and monitors the individual’s continuous sound exposure. The system then alerts the user when the permissible sound exposure limit has been reached. As fitting earplugs will vary from day-to-day, even for trained users, the system verifies attenuation levels and prevents overexposure for the individual user every time.
In addition, the growth in connectivity means health and safety managers can potentially access vast streams of data to help ensure that workers have the correct safety gear and training to operate safely. Connected safety will also improve awareness of long-term risk exposures such as NIHL.
The development of new technologies and effective training will certainly help improve hearing protection. So too will raising the status of hearing protection in the workplace, which is where the EU’s new PPE Regulation (EU) 2016/425 comes in.
One of the key developments is how some PPE is classified. While the regulation maintains the EU directive’s three category levels, it now associates PPE with risks rather than pieces of equipment. Hearing protection, which was previously defined as category II and fell under intermediate risks, has moved to category III and refers to ‘harmful noise and irreversible damage to health’, reflecting the EU’s recognition that hearing loss is a significant issue and one that can have severe repercussions for workers’ health.
While it’s too early to say whether this category change will prompt employers to take hearing protection more seriously, it is clear that a fundamental rethink is required. Unless companies are more proactive, young people entering the workforce today face a real risk of irreversible hearing loss and living with that damage for decades to come.
More on PPE Regulation (EU) 2016/425 here
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