Are you Wearing Enough Hearing Protection?

Are you wearing enough hearing protection? When one layer isn't enough.

To comply with OSHA occupational noise exposure standards, companies are required to limit the amount of noise any one worker is exposed to on the job. For most applications, a single layer of hearing protection will be sufficient. However, double hearing protection may be necessary under certain conditions.

When is Double Hearing Protection Required?

The first step is to know the noise levels your employees encounter each day. Workplace noise measurements are dependent on the specifics of your workplace. Generally, an employee will wear a dosimeter during their shift. The dosimeter measures noise exposure and if you find workers are exposed to an average above 85 decibels (dB) over eight hours, then double hearing protection may be useful along with a required hearing conservation program.

When in an environment above 100 dB, OSHA rules encourage the use of double hearing protection. Some industry specific requirements have a lower standard, requiring double protection above 105 dBa, but OSHA’s guidelines are safest. To comply with all regulations, it best to provide double hearing protection when workplace noise levels exceed 100 dBa in an 8 hour weighted average.

Double Hearing Protection provides a 4 to 8 dB boost, on top of the normal parameters of the ear muffs, for example. Providing ear plugs with ear muffs can reduce noise an additional 85% which leads to a significant reduction in noise-related injuries. The most common form of double hearing protection is the use of ear plugs with ear muffs.

Do Your Workers Have Enough Hearing Protection?

For any noise reduction device (earplugs, ear muffs), a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is provided. Peltor Optime 105 Headband Ear Muffs, for example, have an NRR rating of 30.

To determine how NRR rating affect dB, take the NRR number subtract 7 and divide that number by 2.

In our example: (30 – 7) / 2 = 11.5

A worker wearing Peltor Ear Muffs with a 30 NRR will experience an 11.5 dBa reduction in noise. If your workers are exposed to 100 dBa, then with the earmuffs they will be exposed to 88.5 dBa.

If your workplace requires more, then double protection through 3M Classic Ear Plugs will provide an additional 5 dB of protection. By themselves, 3M earplugs have an NRR rating of 29, but when doubled with Peltor Ear Muffs, an additional 5 dB is added to the highest rating.

In a workplace with an 8 hour average of 100 dB, let us look at a worker wearing both 3M Ear Plugs and Peltor Ear Muffs:

Peltor Ear Muffs: 30 NRR

3M Ear Plugs: 29 NRR

Double Protection: +5 NRR

Total Protection: 35 NRR

Now, let’s calculate the dB reduction of our dual protected worker with 35 NRR.

dB reduction = (35 – 7) / 2 = 14

A worker in a setting with 100 dB with dual protection will now experience 86 dB over eight hours. This dual protection complies with OSHA’s regulations. Both you and your workers are protected.

Special Cases: When OSHA Requires More Protection

For most workspaces, noise must be below 90 dB over eight hours. However, if your worker experienced STS hearing loss, then more is necessary. To determine if your employee suffered a Standard Threshold Shift (STS), answer 3 questions:

  1. Has your employee suffered a 10dB loss in one or both ears?
  2. Is your employee’s overall hearing level at 25dB?
  3. Is your employees hearing loss work-related?
    1. Under OSHA Guidelines, hearing loss cases assume that the loss occurred at work. The burden of proof lies with employers to prove otherwise.
    2. Hearing loss aggravated by a work environment classifies as work-related hearing loss.

If you answered yes to each question above then more hearing protection is required for that employee. An additional 5 dB of protection will put you in compliance and protect your employees from further hearing loss. What Noise Exposure is Ideal?

Just as too little noise exposure is dangerous, so too is the opposite. Excessive noise reduction can cause accidents related to an inability to hear colleagues, alarms, and a general lack of awareness. If a worker needs to remove hearing protection to listen to their equipment or converse with a colleague, then hearing protection may be excessive.

Ideally, aim to reduce noise to bring exposure down to 75 – 85 dB. The CDC recommends that a single layer of ear protection be used for workplaces with noise levels below 100 dB. Above 100 dB, a dual protection layer may be required to reach the ideal workplace noise exposure.

Should You Use Ear Plugs or Ear Muffs?

The quirks of your workplace will determine which hearing protector is best. Only choose hearing protection that allows employees to wear them properly and comfortably for extended periods of time. Here are the main differences:

Ear Muffs

  • May interfere with other safety equipment (glasses, hard hat, respirator)
    • Low profile headbands are designed to prevent interference with hard hats
  • Easier to remove and replace
    • Best for intermittent noise exposure
  • Good for dirty environments
  • Uncomfortable in hot and excessively cold climates

Ear Plugs

  • Comfortable
  • Best for continuous noise exposure
  • Require clean hands to be inserted properly
  • Good for tight spaces
  • Good for extreme temperatures

Ear plugs are the choice of most employees. However, make sure to properly train them on how to insert ear plugs. Below you will find an image (from left to right) of a badly-inserted earplug, a semi-inserted earplug, and a properly-fit earplug.

If earplugs cannot be inserted properly, then earmuffs should be used.

In the End, It Does Really Matter

For most workspaces, a single layer of properly fitting ear muffs or ear plugs will be sufficient to reach the ideal 75-85 dB of noise exposure. Double hearing protection is recommended for employees working in noise levels above 100 dB over an eight hour period. Ear plugs and ear muffs are the most common form of dual protection, providing an additional 5 dB of protection.

Workplace noise levels only have to be re-evaluated when noise exposure increases beyond what your current protection allows. Annual training should include information on the types of protection provided, fit, and use.

Citizens Against Virtually Everything

Citizens Against Virtually Everything

Continuation of How to Improve Workplace Safety

Managers that lead safety training will encounter someone who opposes all efforts to increase safety. No matter how ready you are with OSHA’s Training Guidance, someone may stand in opposition towards your efforts to change.

Citizens Against Virtually Everything are people who oppose all change. It is your responsibility as a safety manager to be prepared and to respond to people in the CAVE.

The First Step with CAVE

Being proactive is the first step. As a manager, you should know who in your group will oppose change. Next, understand why they oppose the change so that you can prepare a response.

CAVE people think that top-down decision-making interferes with their autonomy. CAVE people feel that they do not have control over their actions, and instead of entering a dialogue, dig their heels in and resist all change.

It is important to express the direct effects that your changes will have on everyone. With a focus on CAVE, make sure to have answers to the questions below:

  • What is the desired outcome? Why?
  • How do things change?
  • When do things change?
  • What’s in it for me?

Although it is important to address the concerns of the CAVE specifically, most in your organization will be ambivalent. Be sure to answer these questions in relation to all stakeholders.

Listen to the CAVE

Many people feel that they have not been listened to at work. When it comes to safety, before bringing in a top-down approach, listen to your workers and find out what safety issues they deal with each day. Furthermore, by bringing in everyone in the conversation, it turns a passive employee into one actively engaged in their work environment. How could a CAVE person stand against a safety agenda they helped create?

To begin a discussion, ask them what they think causes workplace accidents. Generally, their answers will address human error and a lack of personal awareness. Their answers won’t include procedures and policies to address that error. As a safety manager, your focus is on policy, however, this approach alleviates the workers your policies are meant to keep safe. By first listening, you increase the chances of finding the protocol that workers circumvent and finding a way to close the safety gaps. Furthermore, because you involve your workers in the process, they will be more likely to respect your rules.

The Benefits of CAVE in your organization

A typical organization will be as follows:

20% Against Change (CAVE)

20% For Change

60% the Ambivalent to Change

The 20% against change will produce 80% of your headaches. It is imperative to separate the CAVE people who are critical to your organization from those that are not. Some CAVE people will have perspectives on problems that may motivate their decision to be against change. An organization needs to encourage constructive feedback from everyone, especially those who oppose it most vigorously. To do so effectively, it is best to begin a policy of CAVE UP.

CAVE UP

Your organization should offer opportunities for CAVE people to express their feedback upwards. Without any opportunity to give constructive feedback, CAVE people will only resent the change further, and do whatever they can to convert ambivalent employees into modicums of CAVE.

It is unprofessional for CAVE people to express their disdain for change downwards. This behavior undercuts the higher-ups. Unconstructive negativity are complaints that flow “down and out” whereas constructive negativity flows “up and in.”

If a managers says “this decision is from corporate” then it shows that you as the manager opposed the change. Your word choice shows the “down and out” negativity of CAVE. If you don’t support the decision, then why would your employees?

Always give the opportunity for everyone in your organization to provide constructive criticism in a safe environment. Managers should proactively be aware of reactions to change to ensure that everyone who has something to say has a forum to say it.

Listen to people in the cave respectfully, and ask “why is this idea bad?”

If you find that there are still CAVE people who oppose all change even with a CAVE UP policy, see the general guidelines below.

General Guidelines for CAVE People

When Nothing Else Works

Even if you address all the concerns of CAVE people, provide a forum for constructive criticism, and respond to that criticism, some CAVE people may still not be convinced. CAVE people may act out negatively to hide a skill-gap or use the workplace to vent personal issues. Be prepared for all eventualities.

What You Should Do:

  • Be clear about responsibilities
    • CAVE people may be complaining about something outside of their direct responsibilities. Remind them of their job.
  • Listen to concerns respectfully
    • Providing a forum for constructive feedback is not always enough. CAVE people may continue to vent in unconstructive ways.
  • Focus on specific behaviors
    • Do CAVE people take over meetings? Tell them.
  • Recognize their negativity may have nothing to do with you.
    • CAVE people may suffer from a lack of confidence at work and use their negativity to hide a skill-gap.
  • Incentivize behavior changes
    • Negotiate a performance linked plan to reinforce positive changes.
  • Consider Termination if behavior continues
    • Remember to document everything. Termination may be the only way to remove negativity.

What you should NOT do:

  • Allow CAVE people to run meetings
    • Giving them a forum to foment discontent will only fuel more negativity.
  • Be rude to CAVE people
    • Do not fight fire with fire. Maintain composure and you will earn the respect of others.
  • Isolate CAVE People
    • It is a good idea to speak with CAVE people in private to hear their constructive feedback and point of view.
    • However, isolating CAVE people in a meeting will only fuel their resentment.
  • Ignore their behavior
    • Do not expect their negativity to resolve on its own. Even if personal issues cause their negativity, do not allow their behavior to continue in the workplace.

If you only do one thing about people in the CAVE, do this.

Be clear with your expectations.

Negative behavior does not change a person’s responsibilities. Always focus on their behavior, and never lead with ad hominem attacks. In order to change behavior, the behavior needs to be addressed.

Conclusion

Everyone will meet people in the CAVE. For managers, it is crucial to know how to respond so as to not encourage others to enter the CAVE. The key is to give those in the CAVE a chance to change through a CAVE UP protocol and then incentive behavior changes after listening respectfully. In the end, someone may be unwilling to leave the CAVE and it is up to you to accept that and consider termination.