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The importance of hearing protection in workplace safety

The importance of hearing protection in workplace safety
By Kevin Rowe 11 months ago No comments

When developing a health and safety policy, it’s easy to focus on the most obvious threats you can see in the workplace, such as dangerous falls, uneven surfaces, high-speed machinery and fire hazards.

However, it’s important to focus not only on what you can see, but also what you can hear. Noise control isn’t always seen as a top safety priority, but the truth is that loud conditions in the workplace can result in serious health problems for workers, meaning that employers are legally obligated to take this matter just as seriously as they would any other health and safety issue.

As such, those in charge of health and safety need to pay close attention to the hearing hazards that might pose a threat in their workplace, and take actions to ensure that every member of staff receives the appropriate hearing protection equipment they need to carry out their work.

Why is workplace hearing protection so important?

Noise-induced hearing loss resulting from working practices has become less of a common problem in recent years due to an increased awareness of the issue - but it would be overstating the matter to suggest it is a thing of the past.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that an estimated 23,000 workers in the UK suffered from work-related hearing problems between 2015-16 and 2017-18, with 70 new claims lodged for work-related deafness in 2017 alone. Industries mentioned by the HSE with the highest risk of work-related hearing problems included the extraction energy and water supply sectors, as well as the manufacturing and construction fields.

Loud noises at work can lead to temporary deafness that can persist for hours, and repeated exposure to these kinds of volumes can cause permanent hearing damage. This is a particular risk in workplaces that regularly utilise loud machinery such as powered tools and heavy-duty vehicles, or whose work involves repeated heavy hammering or explosions.

This is not a problem that businesses are legally allowed to ignore. Under HSE regulations, all UK employers are required to uphold the following responsibilities:

  • Providing employees with hearing protection when the noise level in the workplace exceeds a certain level, or when specifically requested. They must also ensure these protectors are properly used and maintained
  • Identifying hearing protection zones - areas where the use of hearing protection is mandatory - and marking them with signs where possible
  • Providing all employees with training and information on how to use and care for their hearing protectors

Investing in the right hearing protection equipment is therefore just good business sense, helping organisations to provide their staff with a safe working environment, while staying compliant with health and safety legislation.

What kind of hearing protection equipment should companies consider?

There are two main types of hearing protection gear, which will have their own advantages and disadvantages in different circumstances:

Ear plugs

Ear plugs work by inserting directly into the ear canals, meaning they not only protect against excessive noise, but can also stop water, wind or other intrusive foreign bodies from getting inside the ears. Ear plugs are often made of a cheap material like foam and are usually made to be disposable.

These kinds of ear protectors are affordable and offer good protection against loud sounds, with different types of plug blocking varying sound frequencies. On the other hand, they are sometimes inconvenient to insert and remove, making them less suitable for applications where the worker will not be expected to wear their protective equipment at all stages of the task.

Ear muffs/ear defenders

Ear muffs (also known as ear defenders) are designed as protective headsets, covering the ears with sturdy, plastic-coated cushions attached by a headband, or sometimes affixed directly to a hard hat or helmet. The acoustic foam lining of the ear muffs absorbs soundwaves to protect the ears from loud noise.

This type of equipment is easier to put on and remove than ear plugs, and often have thermal insulation qualities, keeping the ears warm in cold weather. However, because they are bigger and bulkier than ear plugs, they are sometimes considered less comfortable, especially in warm workplaces.

Which option is right for my workplace?

When considering the type of equipment to use, it’s vital to take the specific circumstances of your workplace into account. This means making sure the gear gives enough protection for your noise levels, aiming to bring the decibel level below 85 at the ear. It also means picking products that will be comfortable and hygienic for your workers, and that will not be difficult to use in conjunction with other personal protective equipment like hard hats, face guards and eye protection.

When in doubt, it may often be best to provide a range of protectors, allowing employees to choose the ones that suit them best.

What else can companies do to protect their workers’ hearing?

A proper hearing protection policy doesn’t end with a one-off equipment purchase. Bosses need to make sure they are committed to managing this risk proactively and encouraging patterns of working that will help to keep any potential hazards to a bare minimum.

This means incorporating guidance for hearing protection in your health and safety policy and providing training to ensure everyone knows how to uphold their responsibilities in this area; regular spot checks are also advised, as this will help you make sure the rules are adhered to properly at all times.

Additionally, the importance of hearing protection zones should be promoted within the workplace, using safety signs to mark out where they are located and making sure that staff members only spend as much time in these areas as they need to. Above all, managers should lead by example, making a dedicated effort to always wear the appropriate safety gear when they are in these zones.

By doing so, businesses can look after the essential needs of their workforce, and ensure that a loud workplace doesn’t need to be an unsafe one.

For more insights into workplace health and safety, check in regularly with the SafetyBuyer blog. To browse a wide range of hearing protection products, visit the main SafetyBuyer online store.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us on 0800 043 0161.