In our recent webinar, Remote Communication: Hearing Protection Solutions, we were very fortunate to have a hearing protection expert from 3M to cover a timely topic: audibility and communication considerations during a pandemic.
As we slowly adapt to all the changes that have taken place over the past year, we are also faced with new demands at work: having an environment that manages the complexities of a global pandemic while ensuring the health and safety of our teams.
When it comes to hearing protection, the question is: How can workers be well protected? How can they be well protected from dangerous noise levels while working remotely and still have easy and clear communication?
Among other things, they covered:
- Current regulations
- Key elements of the hearing loss prevention program
- The benefits of advanced hearing protection and communication technologies
- Solutions: hearing protection and communication equipment with protection
You have asked us questions, and we are answering them.
What does the law say about hearing protection measures?
Different legislations govern hearing protection measures in the workplace. In Quebec, for example, the LSST (Loi sur la santé et la sécurité du travail) mentions:
The employer must take the necessary measures to protect the health and ensure the safety and physical integrity of the worker.
RROHS (Regulation respecting occupational health and safety) mentions:
Noise emitted at a workstation must be measured at least once a year in any establishment that employs 50 workers or more and where the noise level is likely to exceed the standards.
Measurements must also be taken within 30 days following a change in industrial processes or equipment or following the implementation of means intended to reduce the noise levels emitted at a workstation.
COHSR: Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations
7.3(1) If an employee in the workplace may be exposed to an A-weighted sound pressure level of 84 dBA or more for a period that is likely to adversely affect the employee's hearing, the employer shall without delay:
- (a) assign a qualified person to investigate the degree of exposure
How to choose a hearing protector?
There are many things to consider when choosing a hearing protector, but two of them are crucial:
- Your noise exposure level (your average 8-hour exposure).
- The noise reduction index (considering either the NRI or the CSA class) shows the hearing protector's attenuation capacity.
And there are several other criteria that must be considered as well.
Focusing only on the required elements limits the ability to go beyond regulatory compliance and apply best practices.
Consider a holistic approach to hearing protection selection:
- We know that each worker is a unique individual with their unique ear anatomy.
- Each worker has different ideas of what comfort is.
- Each worker has a different skill level for earplug insertion.
- Some may have pre-existing hearing loss.
- Each application is different. The working conditions and environment may differ (such as temperature, humidity, elements, etc.).
- What other protective equipment should they wear with their hearing protectors, and are they compatible?
- And finally, what about the worker's need for audibility and communication while performing their tasks?
WHAT ABOUT COMMUNICATION?
To ensure a good level of communication between workers, 3M offers hearing protectors that provide hearing protection, but also clear and precise communication.
These communication devices can be found in the form of headsets or in-ear solutions. Connectivity can be provided via cable or wirelessly (Bluetooth or near field magnetic induction), and can even be integrated into the device (radio system).
These devices are capable of communicating with radios, cell phones and/or intercom systems.
Their use can also encourage workers to wear their hearing protection devices properly and for longer periods of time.
Communication equipment with hearing protection allows for
- Clear communication in noisy environments
- Communication at a distance
- Protection from noise (noise-cancelling microphone)
- To reproduce the sound inside the protector
Two-way radio communications are widely used in the industrial and military fields. This type of communication allows workers to communicate quickly and efficiently with each other.
However, radio communications have limitations:
- Only one person can talk at a time
- Communication range is limited to about 1.6 KM
- Can be sensitive to radio interference
- Do not always limit the incoming radio volume (this can create overexposure)
Do face covers cause communication problems?
Here are the results of some recent studies:
Face coverings make communication difficult in at least three ways:
- The first challenge was addressed in a recent study (2020) conducted for the health sector environment. Masks attenuate or reduce the intensity of high-pitched sounds. The amount of reduction depends on the mask but can be as much as 12 dB. The reduction of high-frequency sounds is important because these frequencies are needed to identify the sounds (consonants) and impact our ability to understand speech.
- When we cover our faces, we lose our ability to see facial expressions and see the other person's lips. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has called on the CDC to recognize the need for clear masks for those with hearing or other communication disabilities.
- Finally, we learned that wearing a mask affects the way you speak. Wearers must continually speak louder to be heard.
What are the consequences of overprotecting my hearing while working?
When it's time to buy hearing protection, almost 40% of people go for the most noise-reducing equipment to ensure they have the best protection available.
But remember, overprotection = not hearing surrounding hazards like audible alarms.
Some workers are exposed to lower noise levels. They should not be forgotten, as they are often the ones who come back with the greatest burdens of hearing loss.
In a study published by Rabinowitz et al. in 2007, researchers reviewed the 10-year hearing loss rates of 6,217 employees of an aluminum manufacturing company and used industrial hygiene, and human resources records to reconstruct individual noise exposures.
The researchers then found:
"The greatest burden of preventable occupational hearing loss was found in workers whose noise exposure averaged 85 dBA or less."
While workers exposed to extreme noise need our attention, we also know that 9 out of 10 workers are exposed to 95 dB or less, according to OSHA.
We need to change our approach to workers with lower noise exposures to make sure they are protected.
Therefore, it is suggested to target a reduction between 70 dBA and 80 dBA.
A possible solution could be environmental listening technology that allows sounds to be heard in quiet environments while the sounds are compressed in noisy environments.
This technology enables hearing protection to automatically adjusts to the noise level of the environment. This allows the worker to be aware of his environment and not feel excluded.
I work with an industrial vacuum cleaner that makes a noise of 70 dBA during 8 hours of exposure. According to the standard, I do not need a hearing protector, but should I have one?
Just because a piece of equipment makes a noise of less than 85 dBA does not mean that it should be ignored or that you don't need protection.
As soon as you feel the need, you can ask for personal protective equipment.
Hearing protectors can easily be worn when exposed to low levels of noise. Always keep in mind the risk of overprotection, which depends significantly on the type of work you do.
The level of danger of overprotection differs depending on the type of isolation in which you work, co-activity with co-workers, and other vehicles or machinery.
CSA states in the standard that workers who are unable to hear the sounds around them will unconsciously wear their hearing protectors incorrectly to reduce the sense of isolation and may even remove them altogether to hear better.
When wearing safety glasses, do earmuffs lose their efficiency?
Yes, earmuffs lose their effectiveness when wearing safety glasses, and that is why the CSA suggests a 70% devaluation for earmuffs and a 50% devaluation for earplugs.
Please note that not all safety glasses are the same. The thickness of the stem of the goggle can vary, while very thin models promote seal tightness.
Hearing tests are done with the protective equipment to ensure that each worker's protective shell or cap is the right safety device.
We want to thank the experts from 3M and SPI for their excellent presentation:
Trained as an ergonomist, Genevieve has experience in occupational health and safety management. At SPI, she offers training and expertise in the field of ergonomics and other occupational health and safety topics. She is very enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge in this field.
Hearing and Peltor Communications Specialist 3M
Gwen is a Senior Sales Specialist at the 3M Canada Company, Personal Safety Division. Gwen has been with 3M Canada for 22 years. She has also held roles in technical support and marketing with Peltor over the past 22 years. She was the National Peltor Communications Specialist for Canada for 16 years and the last two years as the Hearing and Communication Specialist for SK, MB, Ontario, and Atlantic Provinces.