Motivating Workers to be Ear-Responsible

Tools To Educate

Motivating Workers to be Ear-Responsible
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"Da be way oo roec your hearing rom haardu noi eboer i oo onidindly oo hearing roecer around loud noi."

These may seem like nonsense words to a reader, but this is what normal speech and conversation may sound like to an employee who lives with noise-induced hearing loss. (*For a translation, see the end of this article.)

Safety professionals know the hazards of loud noise, but how can we convey that risk awareness to workers, and motivate them to take personal and pro-active actions? Read any Hearing Conservation regulation cover to cover, and the word motivation never appears. But the safety-savvy employer will know that motivation is the keystone to preventing noise-induced hearing loss. Motivated employees take responsibility for protecting their hearing both on- and off-the-job, rather than just viewing hearing protectors as a workplace compliance issue.

Here are three tools used in successful Hearing Conservation Programs for instilling the risk awareness that motivates workers to take action to conserve their own hearing:


1. Dispel Their Illusion of Invulnerability

From the young worker with illusions of invincibility, to the seasoned worker who claims "the loud noise doesn't bother me like it used to," there are many in our workforce who don't believe they are personally susceptible to noise damage. These fantasy attitudes may crop up in comments such as, "I'm used to the noise," or "The noise isn't really that bad," when your sound measurements indicate otherwise. The brain may perceptually grow accustomed to constant noise, but anatomically, the ears can never “toughen up” against hazardous noise. Ears respond to loud noise by losing hearing.

We can dispel those illusions of personal invulnerability by providing employees with the hard facts of noise and hearing loss: the audiogram and the measured noise levels.

Several studies have found that the incidence of noise-induced hearing loss drops significantly when workers are provided a copy of their annual audiometric tests, with an explanation of the results. It is hard to argue with an objective test that historically shows the progression of hearing loss from year to year. When provided a copy of their audiogram showing a "noise notch" in their hearing, many workers are surprised: the decline in hearing was so subtle, they had no idea that their hearing was being measurably affected.

Publicly posting the measured noise levels also encourages the use of hearing protectors. Some employers utilize noise thermometer posters, clearly showing specific noise levels at their facility, along with other common occupational and non-occupational noise levels. The message to a worker is clear: Noise above 85 dB can damage hearing, and your lathe machine is 94 dB—you are at risk.

In educating workers about noise damage, specific and personal data is more motivating than broad generalizations. One industrial worksite posts the decibel rating on each piece of continuously operating equipment using clearly visible signage. This method not only reminds regular employees, but also educates temporary workers or visitors of the noise hazard and the need for protection.

 


2. Demonstrate the Future Risk

It is human nature to weigh our risks in terms of "here and now." But since noise-induced hearing loss displays no visible signs of injury and typically develops over years of exposure, how can we show the worker the future risk? Many employers use audio demonstrations, or simulated hearing losses, so that the worker has a clear understanding of his future risk and the need for adequate protection today.

The distorted sentence at the beginning of this article is one example of this simulation. A noise-induced hearing loss typically affects high-frequency hearing (regardless of whether the incoming noise exposure is low, medium or high-frequency noise). The affected worker will have difficulty hearing the high-frequency sounds of speech—consonant sounds like s, k, ch, f, p, th, t and sh. A simple phrase like "Tie your shoe" could sound like "_ie or _oo!" for a worker with a noise-induced hearing loss. Write out a paragraph of text, then eliminate the consonants listed above: you just produced an effective training script for demonstrating future risk for noise-exposed workers.

When noise damages hearing, most people notice a change not in the loudness of conversation, but in the clearness of the words—the words simply sound garbled! In safety training meetings, this can be effectively reproduced on a sound system by playing any speech sample—the announcer at a baseball game, a radio newscast, or a recorded conversation—with the treble tone control turned down to minimum levels. The resulting bass-rich signal—emulating an artificially induced high-frequency hearing loss—effectively demonstrates the frustrating lack of clarity caused by noise damage.

One safety manager recently reported the ultimate motivator. At a company holiday party to which past and present employees were invited, a recently retired worker asked if he might address the audience for just a minute. From the podium, he explained that during his long tenure of service at the company, he was careless about wearing hearing protection, and now suffered hearing loss. He described how the enjoyments he had long been anticipating in retirement were significantly diminished by his deteriorating hearing. He ended his short story with a personal warning to the current workforce: wear your hearing protectors! Those who heard this message from "one of their own" were deeply struck by the personal message. They had been granted a sad but motivating fast-forward glimpse into their own futures, and the need for protection today. 


3. Remove the Barriers to Properly Wearing Hearing Protectors

At the conclusion of her annual audiometric test, I asked one worker if she was consistent in wearing her hearing protectors. "Haven't seen them for weeks," she replied. "We ran out of them on the shop floor, and nobody has re-stocked them yet."

Compliance in wearing hearing protection is sometimes as simple as ensuring an ongoing supply, or providing easily accessible dispensers. But sometimes, the barriers run deeper, and begin in the selection process. A recent NIOSH study examined the reasons why workers do not consistently wear their hearing protectors. Though respondents came from several different countries and from many different industries, the results were quite consistent: the major obstacles to consistent hearing protector usage are interference with communication, interference with job performance, and comfort. Employers who can remove these obstacles in the selection of hearing protectors they offer to employees have effectively eliminated the major barriers to workplace protection.

It is hard to blame workers for being dissatisfied with their hearing protectors when the only choices offered are earplugs that overprotect and isolate the worker. Hearing protectors are now available that address workers' concerns of overprotection and communication interference. Earplugs are available with different attenuation ratings for different noise levels; others are made of special high-tech materials which conform to the shape of the wearer's ear canal. Several earplugs and earmuffs have been designed to maximize communication through uniform attenuation, allowing wearers to hear important sounds (co-workers, warning signals, radio and communication systems, maintenance sounds from machinery) more naturally while still protecting from harmful noise levels. Electronic earmuffs can also enhance communication by amplifying ambient sounds (including speech and warning signals) to a safe level, while protecting against louder, more damaging noise.

Although noise reduction is one factor to consider in selecting appropriate hearing protection, it is not necessarily the most important. Other factors include comfort, size, compatibility with other personal protective equipment (hardhats and safety eyewear), and special job requirements (the need for corded earplugs, or high-visibility earmuffs, for example). Many successful Hearing Conservation Programs actively involve noise-exposed workers in the selection process: a group of representative employees will try samples of a variety of hearing protectors being considered for purchase. This feedback proves valuable in obtaining employee buy-in, and in removing barriers that cannot be evaluated from viewing product specifications alone.

Noise-exposed workers have few inherent incentives for protecting themselves from loud noise. After all, unlike other occupational injuries, noise-induced hearing loss causes no pain or visible trauma, leaves no visible scars, is unnoticeable in its earliest stages, and generally takes years to diagnose. By showing these workers their susceptibility to noise damage, demonstrating the future risk, and removing the barriers to proper wearing of hearing protection, an employer invests in a workforce that takes responsibility for their own hearing protection, both on- and off-the-job.

* "The best way to protect your hearing from hazardous noise exposure is to consistently use hearing protectors around loud noise."


CITATIONS

References Regarding Effectiveness of Employee Feedback in Hearing Conservation Programs

Roberts, Margaret E., "Oral and Written Feedback Following Audiometric Evaluations," in Proceedings of Hearing Conservation Conference, April 1992, hosted by National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, published by University of Kentucky.

Witt, Brad K., "Immediate Feedback in Hearing Conservation Programs," in Proceedings of Hearing Conservation Conference, April 1989, hosted by National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, published by University of Kentucky.

Zohar, D. et al, "Promoting Increased Use of Ear Protectors in Noise Through Information Feedback," Human Factors 22(1), pp. 69-79 (1980).

 

Reference to Issues of Inconsistent Use of Hearing Protectors (NIOSH)

Morata, Thais, "Issues of Hearing Protection Devices Used in Manufacturing and Mining," viewed at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/pubs/presentations/MorataASA2003.ppt