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Safety Tips: Hearing protection important to overall worker health

More than half of factory workers who believe their hearing to be good to excellent actually have suffered hearing loss—and don’t even recognize it.

The four most common hearing protection styles include (from top) canal cap, pre-molded plugs with a rigid stem, compressible foam plugs, and ear muffs.

December 01, 2012

More than half of factory workers who believe their hearing to be good to excellent actually have suffered hearing loss—and don’t even recognize it. These findings came from a recent study conducted by Marjorie McCullagh, PhD, RN, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, and director of the university’s Occupational Health Nursing Program (
McCullagh surveyed 2,691 noise-exposed automobile factory workers. Initially, 76% reported excellent or good hearing, but after formal audiogram hearing tests, her team found that
42% of those workers actually had measurable hearing loss.

“This finding shows that even workers who are served by a workplace hearing conservation program and receive annual hearing testing may be unaware of their actual hearing ability,” McCullagh says. “Most of the damage happens in the first 10 years of exposure. And, often people don’t realize that it’s happening until they have suffered a fair amount of damage.”
Blocking or reducing noise through ear protection has broader physiological impact than just preserving hearing, she says.

“Your whole body responds to noise; not just your ears. Blood pressure, cortisone, stress levels and risks for cardiovascular events all go up,” she explains. “Noise-exposed workers are also more prone to headaches, fatigue and risk of injury. Using hearing protection reduces these risks.”

But for ear protection to work, it has to be worn. McCullagh offers three tips for warehouse managers to help them encourage compliance among their employees.

First, she says, encourage employees to be aware of the noise level around them.

“Sometimes people get used to the noise and try to ignore it, or they think they need to just tough it out,” she says. “However, if you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing an arm’s length away from you, then it’s loud enough that you should be protecting your ears.”

Second, offer a selection of hearing protection options. “One size definitely does not fit all here—hearing protection is more personal than underwear,” McCullagh asserts. “People may have to try several kinds to see what feels comfortable enough that they will want to wear it.”

The four most common styles include:

1. Compressible foam plugs. “They’re soft and comfortable. You roll them between your fingers to compress them, then you place them in the ear canal where they expand to fit. But these are not always appropriate for applications with intermittent noise,” McCullagh says. “They can become irritating to the ear canal if they are removed and inserted repeatedly.”

2. Pre-molded plugs with a rigid stem. “These are particularly good for dirty environments because your fingers only come in contact with the stem, keeping the portion that rests inside the ear canal clean,” she says.

3. Ear muffs. “They’re old-school because they cover the ear completely, and they’re very easy to fit,” she says. “But if you have to wear eye glasses or eye protection, then they won’t work because they cannot maintain a seal against the head.”

4. Canal cap. “These are small foam cushions that rest outside the ear canal. They are attached to a very slim, semi-flexible—sometimes jointed—band that can be worn multiple ways for comfort: over the head, under the chin or behind the neck,” she explains. “They’re good for intermittent use because they don’t irritate the ear canal.”

Finally, adds McCullagh, keep a selection of ear protection wherever there is likely to be noise.

“By keeping the ear protection devices right next to the equipment—whether it’s draped over the steering wheel of a fork truck or in a box located next to processing machinery—people will put it on if it is convenient,” she says. “But nobody is going to walk back to the other end of a building to retrieve their ear protection.”

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Article Topics

Features · Ergonomics · December 2012 · Safety · All topics

About the Author

Sara Pearson Specter has written articles and supplements for Modern Materials Handling and Material Handling Product News as an Editor at Large since 2001. Specter has worked in the fields of graphic design, advertising, marketing, and public relations for nearly 20 years, with a special emphasis on helping business-to-business industrial and manufacturing companies. She owns her own marketing communications firm, Sara Specter, Marketing Mercenary LLC. Clients include companies in a diverse range of fields, including materials handing equipment, systems and packaging, professional and financial services, regional economic development and higher education. Specter graduated from Centre College in Danville, Ky. with a bachelor’s degree in French and history. She lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where she and her husband are in the process of establishing a vineyard and winery.

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