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Ear Protection

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Many industrial environments can be exceptionally noisy, which makes it necessary to provide workers with hearing protection. Failure to adequately protect the ears can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss and other hearing related conditions, including tinnitus.

There are different types of protection available, including ear muffs and ear plugs, depending on the level of noise exposure and the other types of protective equipment that are necessary, such as hard hats. To ensure your workers are using the correct products, it’s vital to have an excellent understanding of the noise that is present, and how this can be managed. For more information see our guide to ear protection products.

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Expert Advice: Ear Protection

Noise can be present in a working environment due to several factors, and the magnitude and length that it is ongoing will influence the type of protection that is required. It’s first necessary to assess the risk factors that can be present in a noisy environment to see if some form of hearing protection should be provided.

A noisy workplace is one where the level is intrusive and you would need to raise your voice to have a conversation from about two metres away. Safety protection will also be required for users operating noisy machinery or power tools for at least half an hour each day.
Other factors that can cause raised levels of noise are impact machinery, such as pneumatic or hammering tools, and sources of explosions. If your workers find they suffer from muffled hearing when they finish their shift, hearing protection should be being worn.

Best practice for hearing protection

When choosing the right type and level of ear protection, it’s important to follow best practice guidelines. This will ensure that you’re masking the right level of noise and that the products are safe for the environment.

The ear protection needs to take the noise level to under 85 decibels by the ear, but it shouldn’t be under 70 decibels. The protective equipment should be targeted at the specific noisy areas and tasks and needs to be appropriate for the environment.

You also need to factor in the other types of personal protective equipment (PPE) that will be used, such as respirators and hard hats, and consider comfort and hygiene for the workers. Hearing protection needs to be provided in a range of specifications so that employees can choose those that fit them best.
It’s essential when using hearing protection not to block out too much of the noise, as this could be another risk factor. Don’t use hearing safety products across the whole site - just focus it on the areas where it’s most needed.

Choosing hearing protection

Before you purchase any type of Personal Protective Equipment, whether it’s hearing protection or clothing, you need to carry out a risk assessment or examine an existing one. This will identify the risk factors and how they can be reduced without the need for protective equipment, such as the installation of new, quieter machinery or limiting a worker’s exposure.

You will also need to measure how long an employee is exposed for and the level of noise present to decide on the most suitable type of protection.

Types of hearing protection

There are two main forms of ear protection: ear plugs and ear muffs.

Ear muffs give protection to workers from excessive noise levels by absorbing the sound waves through increasing the air resistance, which limits the wave amplitude and reduces the degree of noise.

They are typically worn on a head band and can be used alongside hard hats. It’s also possible to combine ear muffs with two-way communication or radio systems, and they can be used in conjunction with earplugs for additional protection.

Earplugs protect workers from loud noises, as well as preventing dust, water, excessive wind or foreign bodies from entering the ear. As they are placed directly into the ear canal, they give a higher level of protection than ear muffs, and their size makes them easier to use with other PPE, such as head protection and safety goggles.

Reducing noise levels

Ear protection should only be used after other means of reducing excessive noise have been implemented. This ensures that the noise is kept as low as possible to limit any damage caused, and protective equipment is then only used to mask what’s left.

For instance, consider if the task can be achieved in a quieter way, using different processes or equipment. Make it a company policy to invest in low-noise equipment, and put in place engineering controls to limit how much noise is produced.

It’s also possible to block out some of the noise that is transmitted into the workplace by using screens, barriers and enclosures around the equipment. Sources of noise can be kept further away from workers, and the installation of absorptive materials, such as mineral wood or open cell form, can help to reduce noise.

Where it’s still necessary to be in a loud environment, limit the number of people exposed by keeping the machinery away from main areas, and reduce the amount of time that the equipment used.

Are ear plugs better than other ear defenders?

Both ear plugs and other types of ear defenders, such as ear muffs, have their advantages. Different types of ear protection work in slightly different ways. Therefore, choosing the best ear protection for your workers will depend on your employees themselves and their various work environments.

As mentioned above, a big advantage of ear plugs is that they provide a high level of hearing protection. Used correctly, they fit directly and snugly into the ear canal, blocking out dangerous noise levels in even the loudest of work environments. They are also generally much more convenient than other types of ear protection. They are very small and light to carry, meaning employees can be issued with ear plugs and can easily keep them in a pocket, for use when entering noisy environments or when using loud machinery, either at the workplace or when on a remote work site. Many other types of ear defenders are much more cumbersome to carry, transport and store. Another significant advantage of ear plugs is that they can be easily worn with other types of safety equipment, such as hard hats, and safety glasses or goggles.

However, it should be remembered that there are some drawbacks to ear plugs. They can be difficult to fit correctly, less hygienic, and can be completely unsuitable for someone with an ear infection or any existing discomfort in the ear. Also, there is not the possibility to allow workers to hear some noises and not others – as there is with electronic ear muffs, which incorporate microphones and radios to allow for easy communications between workers, while still protecting ears from loud background noise. If routinely using ear plugs in the workplace, you might want to consider:

How ear protection is regulated under UK law

Unsurprisingly, given the high level of health and safety regulations in the UK, there are strict rules covering permissible noise levels at work. Noise in the workplace is covered under legislation, namely The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 – also known as the Noise Regulations. Employers are obligated to provide adequate hearing protection for all workers who are exposed to noise levels of 85 decibels or more, based on average daily or weekly exposure. Employers are also required to assess the risk to workers’ health if they are exposed to noise levels of 80 decibels or more, and employees must also be provided with information and training regarding the dangers of noise at work.

The Health and Safety Executive monitors the number of claims made against employers by employees with work-related hearing problems, and their statistics indicate the legislation is working. The amount of new claims for work-related deafness has fallen from over 200 in 2008, to around 70 in 2017, showing that increased attention to hearing protection at work is seems to be effective.

You can access the full text of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and also a useful government issued guide to controlling the risks of noise at work. These documents should help you assess whether you are obliged to provide ear plugs or other types of ear protection for your workers, and which employees are at risk.

Training employees in how to wear ear protection

Make sure all your employees who are required to wear ear protection are trained in how to fit their ear plugs or ear defenders correctly, and when and where their hearing protection should be worn. Ear plugs in particular can be tricky to fit at first, but when fitted correctly, they offer excellent hearing protection, so it is important to take the time to ensure workers are using them correctly. It is a waste of money to invest in ear protection that is not actually protecting your employees’ hearing, so workers should be well educated in the importance of using hearing protection when appropriate, and trained in how to fit it, in order to ensure their hearing is actually protected.

How to clean ear protection equipment

Lastly, it’s important that employees know how to clean and maintain equipment and protect ears from infection or other damage. Ear plugs should be checked for dirt or damage before use, and multiple use ear plugs should always be carefully cleaned after use, according to the manufacturer’s instructions – as should any other type of ear defender. Single use ear plugs are also available and may be suitable for some workers, in order to simplify hygiene in the workplace.