Personal Hearing Protection

Who We Are ] Products ] Reference ] Contacts ]




A personal hearing protection device (or "hearing protector") is anything that can be worn to reduce the level of sound entering the ear. Earmuffs, ear canal caps, and earplugs are the three principal types of devices. Each employee reacts individually to the use of these devices, and a successful hearing loss prevention program should be able to respond to the needs of each employee. Making sure these devices protect hearing effectively requires the coordinated effort of management, the hearing loss prevention program operators, and the affected employees.

OSHA's requirements for hearing protectors are summarized as items no. 31-38 and 51 in Appendix A of this document. Useful guidance can also be found in Appendix B, in the section entitled "Hearing Protection Devices."

Management Responsibilities

Management has two roles in ensuring that hearing protection devices protect hearing effectively: facilitation and enforcement. Facilitation involves ensuring that program implementors obtain the types of devices they need. Management can do this by making sure the procurement department does not override the implementor's selections. Management must demonstrate its commitment to a truly effective hearing protection program, not one that exists just to comply with OSHA regulations. Employee participation in the selection of hearing protectors should be encouraged. Encouragement might take the form of providing safety-related bonuses (e.g., home/auto fire extinguisher, first aid kits, smoke alarms) as a "reward" for employees who use protection regularly and properly, and for supervisors who energetically support hearing protection policies. Management should extend its commitment to hearing protectors by requiring all personnel, including managers and visitors, to wear protectors in designated areas, and by encouraging employees to take hearing protectors home to use whenever engaging in noisy activities.

Management should give program implementors the opportunity to pilot-test hearing protectors on a few employees. This will greatly facilitate decisions relating to the selection and ultimate effectiveness of these devices. Hearing loss prevention program implementors should also be provided with resources and facilities to train employees in the use and care of hearing protectors.

Enforcing the use of hearing protectors is management's second vital role. Use of personal safety equipment, such as hearing protectors, must be clearly stated as a condition of employment, and management should be prepared to deal accordingly with those who violate the policy. Those who have decided not to wearing hearing protection in noisy areas also have decided not to work for the company.

Program Implementor Responsibilities

It is essential to the success of the program to have someone responsible for the selection of hearing protection devices and the supervision of their use. They must be able to evaluate and select appropriate devices for each employee, based on proper fit, the employee's noise exposure, hearing ability, communication needs, personal preferences and other constraints imposed by job tasks or work environment. Not every person can wear every hearing protector. Some people may be unable to wear certain types of earplugs because of the shape or size of their ear canals. Because of individual differences in the shapes and sizes of heads, some people will be unable to wear some earmuffs. Individual assessment of comfort and ability to tolerate prolonged use of a given device cannot be predicted and will vary widely between individuals. Also, some protectors may be incompatible with other safety and protective devices. Therefore, program implementors must make a variety of devices available. Preferably, program implementors should make available a set of devices that have been pilot-tested for effectiveness and employee acceptance. When fitting hearing protectors, attention needs to be given to each ear. It is not uncommon for a person to have right and left ear canals that are different sizes and must therefore be fitted with earplugs that are separately sized for each ear. Ear canals should be inspected to assure that no physical problems, such as infections or excessive ear wax, will compromise or complicate the use of hearing protectors.

Program implementors must be able to educate employees one-on-one about the proper use and care of hearing protectors. They must be sure that each employee can demonstrate competence in fitting and using the protector, and is familiar with replacement procedures. Program implementors should also encourage employees to ask questions and to seek help in resolving problems.

Another important aspect of a successful program is to perform on-site checks of the condition of the protectors, noting misuse or wearer "modification" that would diminish effectiveness of the protectors. Program implementors should have a ready supply of replacement protectors, and be prepared to work with those employees whose negative attitudes prevent them from using these devices properly and routinely. In an environment where a safety culture has been established, peer pressure in favor of protector use can be effective in helping to resolve these problems.

Program implementors should be alert for common pitfalls associated with use and care of hearing protectors. For example, motorcycle helmets, personal stereo headsets, swimmers earplugs, and hearing aids cannot be substituted for hearing protectors. Program implementors should be proactive in working with employees to avoid such pitfalls.

Employee Responsibilities

Employees, of course, are the focus of the hearing protection program, and must make efforts to be fully informed, to obtain help when necessary, and to assume responsibility for wearing their hearing protectors. Whenever the employee must work in hazardous noise, the employee becomes the first line of defense against hearing loss. Employees must consciously develop personal habits and strategies for wearing their hearing protection. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to succumb to the constant barrage of opportunities to misuse personal hearing protectors, thereby risking exposure to harmful levels of noise.

How employees utilize personal hearing protection has a critical impact on hearing loss prevention. They must recognize the importance of wearing their hearing protector whenever they are exposed to hazardous noise. Wearing their hearing protector at all times simply cannot be overemphasized. As the graph on page 39 illustrates, removing a hearing protector for only a few minutes can dramatically reduce its effectiveness. Following manufacturers' instructions and wearing their hearing protector correctly is just as important as wearing their hearing protector consistently. To achieve the maximum benefit, employees must make sure they wear their protectors correctly. The bar charts on page 40 compare the Noise Reduction Rating hearing protectors can theoretically provide with the hearing protection employees typically obtain in the "real world" (Berger, Franks and Lindgren, 1994). The differences between the maximum protection theoretically possible, and the protection usually obtained in the "real world" are influenced by many factors. An employee's failure to correctly insert an earplug or adjust an earmuff, are arguably the chief culprits responsible for diminished real world hearing protection. Thus, even if an employee has been issued a correctly-sized hearing protector, and has been trained in its use and care, it is quite possible that he or she could receive little or no effective hearing protection because of faulty fit. Employees must resolve to wear their hearing protection correctly or they will greatly reduce its ability to prevent harmful noise from damaging their hearing.

Willful failure to wear hearing protection should be taken seriously. Employees should consider that management is responsible for ensuring compliance with health and safety requirements. Should employees fail to wear their hearing protection, management can be held accountable and may be cited and penalized for noncompliance with health and safety regulations.

Part of the employees' responsibility toward wearing their hearing protector is to cultivate a vigilant attitude about hearing protection. Employees should expect their hearing protectors to slip or work lose over a period of time. Throughout their work shift, employees must periodically check to see if they need to readjust or refit their protector in order to maintain a reliable fit.

Hearing protectors break and become worn. Employees also need to check their protector regularly and to seek repair or replacement whenever necessary. Lastly, they can help each other by encouraging their co-workers to use hearing protectors and to seek help when they have problems.

Employees must guard against acquiring a false sense of safety. As the discussion and figures in this section have illustrated, it is easy to misuse hearing protectors and greatly reduce their effectiveness. Employees CAN prevail over most hearing health hazards if they: 1) properly wear their hearing protectors, 2) exercise a commitment to wear their hearing protectors consistently, and 3) maintain their hearing protectors by repairing or replacing them when necessary.

OSHA Requirements

Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Chapter XVII, Part 1910, Subpart G, 1910.95: sections (a), (b), (I), (j), and Appendix B.

See checklist in Appendix A of this guidebook,
items no. 31-38 and 51.
See checklist in Appendix B of this guidebook,
section entitled "Hearing Protection Devices."

Further Reading

Berger EH [1993]. E•A•RLog Monograph Series Nos. 1-20. Indianapolis, IN: Cabot Safety Corp.

Berger EH. [1986] Hearing protection devices. In: Berger EH, Ward WD, Morrill JC, Royster LH, eds. Noise and Hearing Conservation Manual. 4th ed. Akron, OH: American Industrial Hygiene Assoc., Chapter 10.

Berger EH, Franks JR, Lindgren F [1994]. International Review of Field Studies of Hearing Protector Attenuation. Proceedings of the 5th International Symposium on the Effects of Noise on Hearing. Gothenburg, Sweden.

Franks JR, Themann CL, Sherris C. [1994] The NIOSH Compendium of Hearing Protection Devices. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 95-105. Cincinnati, OH: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

(1-800-35-NIOSH, press 1).

Nixon CW, Berger EH [1991]. Hearing Protection Devices. In: Harris CM, ed. Handbook of Acoustical Measurements and Noise Control 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Royster LH Royster ,JD [1985]. Hearing protection devices. In: Feldman AS, Grimes CT, eds. Hearing Conservation in Industry. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, .Chapter 6.



NRR Reduction As a Function of Number of Minutes HPD is Not Worn

NRR Hearing Protectors Provide in the Real World (Ear Plugs)

NRR Hearing Protectors Provide in the Real World (Ear Muffs)


Back to Table of Contents

Go To Next Page