Protecting Your Hearing

Photos courtesy of 3M.

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By Jason Lunn and Becky Schumann

Hearing protection in the wood flooring industry is often overlooked due to a variety of reasons, but it really shouldn’t be. Hearing loss due to loud noises (Noise Induced Hearing Loss – NIHL) is one of the most common work-related illnesses. Did you know that, according to NIOSH, almost 20% of noise-exposed workers have a material hearing impairment, which is defined as hearing loss that impacts day-to-day activities? Also, about 8% of all workers have tinnitus, which is described as a permanent loud ringing or buzzing in the ears usually due to exposure to loud noises, and depending on the severity of it, can be debilitating and affect a person’s way of life.

The good news is, hearing loss is 100% preventable. So why don’t people make more of an effort to protect and save their hearing? It’s because unlike other injuries, it’s hard to imagine our hearing becoming “injured.” In fact, some people believe that the only time they need hearing protection is when a noise is painful to listen to. The truth of the matter is, hearing damage can occur when exposed to sounds of much less intensity with no discomfort at all. The scary part is that, because you don’t feel it happening, hearing damage can occur slowly over time without you ever being aware of it until it’s too late.

So the question now is: when should you wear hearing protection? A general rule of thumb is to wear hearing protection for any noise that’s louder than 85 decibels. To give you an idea of how loud that is, remember, if you have to speak loudly or shout to someone three feet away from you for them to understand you, it’s too loud. Think about the last time you were around a big machine or edger and tried to hold a conversation with someone in the room. You probably had to talk loudly or even shout to be heard. Both of these machines create hazardous noise over 85 decibels. In fact, big machines can sometimes get to 97 decibels. At that sound pressure level, NIOSH’s permissible exposure time is 30 minutes, meaning, if you’re exposed for longer than that, there’s a risk of NIHL and hearing protection is recommended. And, as you know, edgers are even louder, which means you’ll need hearing protection even sooner.

Don’t assume impulse noises, such as a pneumatic nailer, or short exposures, such as a quick cut on a chop saw, aren’t harmful, though. As you have probably guessed by now, without hearing protection, even these can cause hearing damage. In fact, if it’s loud enough, it can actually cause damage with just one exposure. So don’t think that a quick cut with a chop saw is no big deal. Wear your hearing protection. It’s important to remember, once you sustain hearing loss, it is permanent and does not heal or get better.

With all of the choices out there, it can be hard to know what type of product to choose to help protect your hearing. So, let’s talk about the two most common types of hearing protection on the market: earplugs and earmuffs.

Earplugs are a simple and cost-effective option that have been around for more than 40 years. They’re soft and conform to your ear canal and can provide surprisingly good attenuation with the proper fit. Many options are available including the classic roll-down, push-in, banded- and corded-style, and even reusable and washable earplugs. Getting the proper fit with an earplug is critical, though. It’s not as easy as simply stuffing it in your ear. There’s a certain technique to it since earplugs actually need to go deeper in the ear canal than some people might realize. For example, when a disposable foam earplug is inserted correctly, someone looking directly at you should typically not be able to see the earplug extending out. Make sure to read the directions before using. If you can’t find an earplug that fits comfortably in your ear canal, you may want to consider an earmuff instead.

Earmuffs are a versatile option because of the way they fit. For one, they completely cover your ears, and for some, this is a more comfortable fit than earplugs. They also have an adjustable headband to fit a variety of head sizes and shapes. Earmuffs are reusable too, and many offer replaceable sealing rings to help extend the life of the muff. Although you may invest more upfront, earmuffs may be a better long-term option. Keep in mind that fit is just as important for an earmuff as it is with an earplug. To help achieve a proper fit, make sure there is no gap between the headband and the top of your head. If the cups don’t press against your head firmly and seal completely around the ears, you may not achieve the expected level of protection. Also, anything interfering with the seal of the earmuff cushions and the side of your head (including a baseball hat, hair, glasses, a pencil) can potentially cause noise leakage, which can reduce the product’s ability to decrease noise. In a lot of cases, you may be wearing safety glasses with your earmuffs, so make sure you find safety glasses that are compatible and comfortable with those earmuffs.

Want to have some fun while protecting your hearing? Look for an entertainment hearing protector. These earmuffs allow you to listen to AM/FM radio or stream your favorite music from your cell phone all while helping protect your hearing from hazardous noise, which is a great way to break up the monotony of a tedious task. Look for one with a built-in decibel limiter so you can’t crank up the music and potentially damage your hearing with the product trying to help protect it.

With all of the options out there, you are almost certain to find a hearing protector to help meet your needs.

Jason Lunn is Sr. Technical Service Engineer at St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M. He can be reached at jtlunn@mmm.com. Becky Schumann is Industrial Hygienist within the Personal
Safety Division of St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M. She can be reached at blschumann@mmm.com.

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