Are you wearing hearing protection at work?

According to a new study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), over half of noise-exposed workers didn’t use hearing protection “always” or “usually” when exposed to hazardous occupational noise. Hearing protection device (HPD) non-use was only measured in workers who reported exposure to noise on the job. This study was published online in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

A news release from NIOSH stated an estimated 22 million workers in the United States face exposure to hazardous noise at work each year. While fewer workers are exposed to noise in industries like finance, insurance, healthcare and social assistance, NIOSH researchers found some of the highest prevalences of HPD non-use among the exposed workers in these industries. Additionally, researchers found female workers, young workers (aged 18-25), and current smokers had a significantly higher prevalence of HPD non-use.

The study looked at 39,508 adult current workers from the 2007 and 2014 National Health Interview Surveys. These surveys asked participants about their HPD use and occupational noise exposure within the past year. Of the workers surveyed, 2,057 reported exposure to occupational noise during the previous 12 months in 2007 and 3,380 in 2014. Overall, between 2007 and 2014, the prevalence of HPD non-use did not change significantly.

Among all workers exposed to noise in 2014, researchers found the majority (53%) did not wear hearing protection consistently. Industries with the highest HPD non-use among noise-exposed workers included:

  • Accommodation and Food Services (90%)
  • Health Care and Social Assistance (83%)
  • Education Services (82%)

Additionally, some of the industries where noise is a well-recognized hazard, were found to have high prevalences of HPD non-use, including:

  • Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting (74%)
  • Construction (52%)

Why is hearing protection so important for these workers? 

A report published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality report found nearly one in four adults (24%) had audiometric notches, suggesting a high prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss. This prevalence was higher among males. Almost one in four U.S. adults who reported excellent or good hearing had audiometric notches (5.5% bilateral and 18.0% unilateral). Among participants who reported exposure to loud noise at work, almost one-third had a notch.

That’s important because these workers are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss, one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Yet, wearing proper hearing protection can reduce the risk of hearing loss for these workers.

If you’re exposed to loud noises in your workplace and you don’t wear hearing protection, now would be a great time to start. Hearing loss is preventable, but once your hearing is gone, it’s gone. Hearing aids are typically the individual’s only option to hear better.

Selecting the best hearing protection for you

If your workplace has an occupational health professional on staff, talk with them about the best strategies to prevent hearing loss on the job. Some recommendations are very specific depending on the type of work you do and the level of noise you are exposed to.

NIOSH has established an 8-hour, time-weighted average of 85 dB(A) recommended exposure limit to protect most workers from developing hearing loss from noise exposure over a 40-year career. However, at that sound pressure level approximately 8% of workers could still develop hearing loss, and thus NIOSH recommends that hearing protection be worn whenever noise levels exceed 85 dB(A), regardless of the length of exposure.

There are three basic types of noise protection:

  • Over-the-counter foam earplugs
  • Earmuffs or headphones
  • Custom hearing protection

Many companies provide foam earplugs and/or earmuffs/headphones for their workers. Be sure to take advantage of these if they are available.

When wearing foam earplugs, be sure you insert them properly. They only protect your ears if they are used correctly. The plugs should seal the ear canal without being uncomfortable.

If you don’t like foam earplugs, headphones or earmuffs may be a better option for you. They work to block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Muffs can be “low profile” with small ear cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme noise. Some muffs also include electronic components to help users communicate or to block impulsive noises (noise-cancelling headphones).

Workers who have heavy facial hair or who wear glasses may find it difficult to get good protection from earmuffs. The hair and the temples of the glasses break the seal that the earmuff cushions make around the ear. For these workers, earplugs may work better.

To achieve maximum hearing protection, you might consider wearing the foam earplugs with the earmuffs over them.

You also may want to consult an audiologist regarding custom hearing protection. These devices require earmolds and are made especially for the individual. An audiologist also can evaluate your hearing to determine whether you have any hearing loss, document that hearing loss, and make recommendations for treatment, if necessary.

Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist.