When should hearing protection be used?
Hearing protection is vital when working in noisy environments, especially for a prolonged period of time. Hearing protection must be worn where extra protection is required over and above the current noise control procedures. By the same token, if you are currently developing noise control measures, but work within the noisy environment has to begin immediately, PPE should be used to protect workers in order to keep your staff safe. It is important to understand that PPE shouldn't be used as a cheaper alternative to other noise control measures as your first thought should always be to remove the risk.
- Hearing protection must be used where extra protection is required over and above noise control measures.
- A short term risk control measure while permanent risk removal procedures are put into place.
What does the law require employers to do?
According to the HSE, by law, if you are asked for hearing protectors and the noise exposure level is between the lower and upper exposure action values, you must provide them. It is the employer's responsibility to ensure that hearing protection provided is being used correctly when noise exposure levels exceed the upper exposure action values.
Hearing protection zones must also be identified and signposted effectively wherever possible, by doing this you are ensuring that staff and visitors are aware they are entering a zone where PPE is required. Training and information should also be provided, the 'Don't lose your hearing' pocketbook created by the HSE is a good start, which can be found here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg363.htm
- Provide hearing protection as soon as it is required.
- Ensure hearing protection is being used correctly when noise exposure levels exceed the upper exposure action values.
- Ensure hearing protection zones are identified and signposted.
- Provide training as and when required.
- Ensure maintenance is carried out.
How can hearing protection be used effectively?
The HSE outlines some Do's and Don'ts when it comes to the effective use of hearing protection, first of all the do's:
You need to ensure that the protectors used are adequate for the required task, reducing the noise enough to keep your workforce safe. You should be aiming to reduce the noise at ear to below 85dB. Select hearing protection which is suitable for the environment, taking considerations such as heat and hygiene into account - we'll talk about this more later in the post. Also consider the other PPE which may be used alongside such as helmets, eye protection or breathing apparatus, as these will impact the comfort of the user. Where possible, provide multiple options for staff to choose from to allow them to pick the most comfortable.
And the don'ts:
Don't provide ear protectors which cut too much noise, this could lead to isolation, an increase in unwillingness to wear them or even create further risk from other aspects of the job role. Where the law doesn't require it, don't make wearing hearing protection mandatory and don't have a blanket approach to hearing protection where it must be used within every area of the business, this is where 'hearing protection zones' come into action.
- Ensure hearing protection is adequate for the task, reducing noise at ear to below 85 dB.
- Take environmental factors into effect such as temperature and hygiene.
- Consider other PPE which may be used alongside hearing protection (helmets, eye protection).
- Wherever possible provide multiple options for staff to choose from.
- Provide ear protections which cut too much noise.
- Make hearing protection mandatory where the law doesn't require it.
- Don't have a blanket approach for hearing protection, instead opting for 'hearing protection zones'
Benefits of ear defenders
Everyone who has had to wear hearing protection has a personal favourite, but there are certain conditions in which ear plugs or defenders will be of more use. Ear defenders tend to be much easier to fit, simply slip on and adjust the headband, meaning that they do not need to be specifically prepared. As they are so easy to fit, they are perfect for intermittent use and can be taken off and put back on at a moment's notice, providing a consistent, reliable fit.
Another benefit when using ear defenders is that you will always receive the listed protection. As well as being available in hi-visibility material adding extra safety. Finally, ear defenders are more comfortable than ear plugs in cooler climates, especially when wearing for long periods of time.
- Easy to fit
- Available in hi-vis
- Do not need to be specifically prepared.
- Ideal for intermittent use, especially construction.
- Consistent and reliable fit.
- The protection wearers are getting meets the listed protection for the ear defender.
- In cooler climates, ear defenders are more comfortable for wearing hearing protection for long periods of time.
Negatives of ear defenders
Ear defenders, generally speaking offer less protection than ear plugs. This is due to the ear defender simply sitting over the ear rather than in the ear canal as the ear plugs do. In warmer climates, heat can build up within the ear defender causing discomfort and hygiene concerns. Finally, ear defenders, when used in conjunction with other PPE such as helmets and eyewear, you may not receive the full listed protection level.
- Usually offer less protection than ear plugs
- Sit over the ear rather than in the canal
- Heat can build up in hot climates
- Can lose some of their protection when worn with other types of PPE, particularly safety glasses.
Benefits of Ear Plugs
Ear plugs generally speak offer a high level of protection when fitted correctly as they fit directly within the ear canal, as such this makes them suitable when higher levels of protection are required. Due to their small size, ear plugs can fit into a pocket-size case improving accessibility and hygiene. Finally, in contradiction to ear defenders, plugs are much easier to use alongside other PPE such as helmets and eyewear.
- High level of protection because they fit directly in the ear canal
- Suitable when higher levels of protection are required.
- Easy to carry because they are small and can fit into pocket-size cases (see image)
- If other types of PPE are required such as safety glasses, breathing apparatus etc, ear plugs tend to be more suitable as there is less interference.
Negatives of Ear Plugs
Ear plugs can be difficult to fit if proper training isn't provided, in order to work effectively, ear plugs must be fitted into the canal correctly otherwise you may not reach the listed protection level. Nigh on impossible to wear if the user has an ear infection or suffers from persistent ear infections as ear plugs may cause the user severe pain.
- Can be difficult to fit and they rely on properly fitting the ear canal to ensure full protection. Improper fitting can result in a loss of protection.
- However if employees are trained on how to fit ear plugs then they consistently provide the listed protection.
- Very difficult or impossible for people with ear infections to wear.
Maintenance and storage and cleaning
In order to ensure that the hearing protection provided works effectively and continues to do so there are certain checks which must be carried out, according to the HSE some of these are:
- It remains in good, clean condition.
- Ear defender seals are undamaged.
- The tension of headbands is not reduced.
- There are no unofficial modifications.
- Compressive earplugs are soft, pliable and clean.
The HSE also advises the following checks:
- Include wearing hearing protection (especially within hearing protection zones) in your safety policy.
- Have a competent person in charge of issuing hearing protection and ensuring that they are used correctly.
- Carry out spot checks of the use and condition of PPE.
- Ensure all managers and supervisors lead by example.
- Ensure only people who need to be there enter hearing protection zones, reducing the number of people at risk.
- Remove the risk if possible prior to the issuing of PPE.
There are 17 European safety standards in total which companies must follow in the manufacturing of hearing protection, four of the main standards are as follows:
- EN 352-1: 2002 - Hearing protectors - Ear muffs
- EN 352-2:2002 - Hearing protectors - Ear plugs
- EN 352-3:2002 - Hearing protectors - Ear muffs attached to a safety helmet
- EN 458:2004 - Hearing protectors - Selection, use, care and maintenance
The various hearing protection available carry different replacement rates.
Banded Ear Plugs (Re-useable) should be replaced when:
- Product shows wear and tear
- Earbuds are no longer pliable
- Headbands are stretched
- Every 6-8 months for normal wear
- Every 3-4 months with heavy use or humid/extreme environments
Ear Defenders and helmet mounted ear defenders should be replaced when:
- Product shows wear and tear
- Ear cushions degrade
- Headbands are stretched
- Every 6-8 months for normal wear
- Every 3-4 months with heavy use of humid/extreme environments
Disposable ear plugs should be replaced:
- Daily (or within reason) as they can harbour bacteria and earwax
- May not stand up to washing