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Ear Protection

The Importance of Effective Ear Protection

For many of the Gautengers now contending with the onset of winter, the concept of ear protection is unlikely to extend much further than thoughts of a thick woollen scarf or a beanie to keep those vulnerable, exposed appendages warm. In practice, however, there is a far more important reason to keep them covered up, and it has nothing to do with the weather. More prevalent today than at any other time in the past, and on the increase worldwide, that more important role is to protect the wearer from the risk of noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL. Although the current prevalence of NIHL can directly be attributed to aspects of our 21st-century lifestyles, it was first documented as far back as the 16th century, by a French surgeon. He based his belief about the damaging effect of loud noise for human hearing on his observation of subjects repeatedly exposed to gunfire. Despite his insightful conclusion, no form of ear protection appears to have been proposed at the time.

By the end of the First World War, the potential link between noise and hearing loss was even more evident among the returning survivors. However, only with the birth of audiology following the Second World War, was this subjective view eventually substantiated by experiments, and appropriate interventions considered. In the meantime, the fact that this condition was not confined to those on the battlefield had been largely overlooked, yet the incidence of NIHL among workers had probably been growing steadily since the advent of steam power and electricity that kick-started the industrial revolution.

The continued failure to introduce any form of ear protection for workers in industrial occupations even led to the severe hearing loss commonly experienced by those involved in the manufacture of ships’ boilers, becoming known as “boilermaker’s disease”. Today, many of the millions of people worldwide affected by hearing loss can attribute this to their jobs. However, it is only over the course of the past four decades or so that governments have begun introducing legislation requiring employers to curb the level of noise in the workplace and, where it remains necessary, to provide their workers with a suitably effective means with which to protect themselves from its potentially life-changing effects.

The three main types of ear protection in use today are earmuffs, earplugs, and ear defenders. All may be purchased over the counter, although it is highly unlikely that an OTC product will be able to provide the level of attenuation necessary to protect the wearer from noise-induced hearing loss. However, the muffs might help to stave off the cold, while the plugs could make it easier for those with a partner who snores to get a better night’s sleep. On the other hand, good-quality ear defenders are certainly a valuable asset for those who are required to spend time at a shooting range or just enjoy the sport. In the workplace, however, they are likely to prove a bit too bulky.

A more practical form of ear protection for workers would be earplugs, but only if they are tailored to fit each individual worker. The precise contours of the outer ear vary quite widely between individuals. Consequently, to ensure that there will be no penetration of noise through any tiny gaps left by an ill-fitting unit, the plugs need to be shaped with the use of moulds prepared from both the left and right ears, rather like a dentist taking impressions from which a technician then prepares a dental prosthesis.

To suggest that a wax or mouldable silicone plug might serve as well is not totally unreasonable. However, though providing a sufficiently snug fit, this type of ear protection would need to be constantly removed and replaced to allow the wearer to hear important instructions from a foreman or to communicate with co-workers. What is required is a more selective type of plug; one that is designed to fully-attenuate dangerously high levels of noise, but which does not exclude sounds of a safe level, such as those associated with normal speech.

No less important than the hardware is a clear understanding of why it is necessary, so both employers and employees should be alerted to the nature of NIHL and the inevitable, damaging consequences of failing to make use of some form of proven and effective ear protection.

H.A.S.S. Industrial is a leader in its field and as such, offers South African industries a comprehensive hearing conservation management programme to accompany its world-class, custom-made Noise-Ban products.

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