Bev Borst, advanced safety specialist for 3M Canada, recommends worker audiograms be performed to identify those at additional risk. (Stephanie Wallcraft photo)
Ensuring workers with pre-existing hearing loss are given hearing protection that is neither under- nor overprotective is critical to ensuring that they use the equipment correctly, according to Bev Borst, Advanced Specialist for the Personal Safety Division of 3M.
“Those with hearing loss are people that need to be looked at in the workplace to make sure they have the right hearing protector,” Borst commented after leading a session titled Moving Beyond Hearing Protection: The Importance of Critical Communication. “You don’t want to give them earplugs with the highest protection if that’s not what they need.”
Borst said workers with hearing loss who are improperly protected may remove their hearing protection devices to better communicate with colleagues or to hear machine operation or warning signals, which may worsen the hearing loss and create a spiral effect that makes the worker increasingly difficult to protect adequately.
Data from a 2015 study titled Association between ambient noise exposure, hearing acuity, and risk of acute occupational therapy, which examines injury rates related to hearing loss at six aluminum manufacturing facilities in the United States, draws a clear line between worsening hearing loss and risk of worker injury. The study found that workers with a mild hearing loss have a six percent increase in injury risk in higher noise environments, while those with moderate to severe loss have a 21 percent risk increase. These figures stay consistent regardless of the type of hearing protection used.
Of the study’s 9,220 participants with pre-existing hearing loss, 3,370 workers suffered 5,566 acute injuries as a result of working in high-noise environments, 1,100 of which were minor and 1,300 were serious in nature, meaning they required medical treatment or resulted in work restrictions or lost work time.
Borst recommended worker audiograms be performed to identify those at additional risk and that hearing protection for those workers be selected based on individual needs, not as a one-fits-all style solution.
“If I’m wearing an earplug that has a noise reduction rating of 31 decibels, and I’ve put it in perfectly and my noise is at 88 or 89, there’s less than 70 decibels reaching my inner ear,” Borst said. “I’ve got too much protection.
“The CSA standards recommend they get into an electronic earplug or earmuff so that they can accentuate the sounds around them to hear them easier, so that they’re not feeling isolated and they’re not missing out on communication or warning signals.”