Understanding Noise Exposure in the Workplace and choosing appropriate hearing protection are crucial for preventing worker hearing loss. Equally important are making sure hearing protection and noise controls are in place. However, just as too little protection can permanently damage ears, overprotection leads to a whole host of other safety hazards.

The Purpose of Hearing Protection

Hearing protection should bring noise levels to an acceptable point, which OSHA defines as 85dB. Noises above this level can permanently damage ears. The purpose of hearing protection is to prevent this from happening.

On the other end, bringing noise levels significantly below this acceptable level, say out of the 70-85dB range, with hearing protection is not safe either. In fact, this over protection presents its own set of dangers in the workplace.

Hearing conservationist Renee S. Bessette, COHC, tells Fabricating & Metalworking that there is no hard and fast rule to define over protection but that it basically occurs when sound levels are reduced so far below 85dB that communication cannot properly take place.

“For example, properly using an earplug rated at 33 NRR to protect against 90dB noise levels (the minimum for which protection is required) would definitely qualify.”

The Dangers of Over-Protection

The dangers of over-protection with regard to noise levels in the workplace involve three basic issues.

  • Communication Breakdown: Happens when workers are unable to hear warning signals and alarms and when poor communication channels among workers result in mistakes.
  • Feelings of Isolation: Ineffective and lack of communication lead to workers who are less happy and productive than those participating in healthy communication situations.
  • Under Protection: Frustrated over not being able to hear or communicate properly or at all, workers may remove hearing protection and expose themselves to cumulative hearing damage.

Worker Wearing Earmuffs

In order to Prevent Hearing Damage with Proper Ear Protection, employers must appropriately address noise protection needs as well as deliberately work to strengthen communication channels.

Preventing Over-Protection

Ensuring appropriate hearing protection in the workplace involves first developing an understanding of noise levels. Then, find ways to address them within each unique situation.

Consider the following general steps to begin this process.

  1. Develop awareness of noise levels. If not already done, measure levels as part of an OSHA-mandated Hearing Conservation Program. Post a noise map, and make sure workers know what protection is required at all times. Also, keep in mind that hearing protection is not always needed.
  2. Make appropriate hearing protection available. Awareness isn’t enough. Appropriate hearing protection must be readily available in order for it to be used consistently.
  3. Enforce correct hearing protection. Do this through a combination of group training and one-on-one discussions. Also, add in a hands-on approach to make sure hearing protection is used properly on a regular basis.
  4. Educate about hearing loss. Workers need to know the very real risks of permanent hearing loss. They also need an awareness of the related dangers of over protection.
  5. Observe the situation. Often, simply watching a normal day’s workflow can indicate general hearing protection needs.

Types of Hearing Protection

An appropriate hearing program in the workplace also involves knowing the various hearing protection products available. In addition to understanding Noise Exposure in the Workplace, have a general idea of the products available to help prevent hearing loss.

Products To Prevent Over Protection

A few products specially aid in the prevention of problems due to over protection.

More Is Not Always Better

The “more is always better” approach can lead to over protection, which creates safety hazards. Instead, focus on obtaining the best hearing protection for the situation. Also, understand how needs change from one individual and workplace situation to the next.

Hearing damage from too much exposure generally accumulates over time. Damage from over protection, however, usually happens in an instant and therefore cannot be ignored.