Hearing Protection: Critical, but Often Unused

Photo credit: NIOSH (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/hierarchy/default.html)

About 14% of U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous occupational noise each year. The best way to reduce worker noise exposure is to follow the Hierarchy of Controls, beginning with eliminating the noise hazard; replacing the loud equipment or process; and using engineering controls to reduce noise levels at the source. These are considered the most effective methods, because they remove or reduce the hazard for all affected workers. However, when these options are insufficient to reduce noise to safe levels, hearing protection is necessary.

Hearing protection is only effective when worn consistently and correctly. Unfortunately, many workers report not wearing their hearing protection when they are exposed to noise on the job. A recent study indicates that across all occupations, more than half of noise-exposed workers don’t wear their hearing protection (53%). The three occupation groups with the most workers not wearing their hearing protection during noise exposure were healthcare support occupations (94%), food preparation and serving-related occupations (90%), and education, training and library occupations (87%). [See chart, below]

Hearing Protection Non-Usage, by Occupation
-Adapted from Table III, Green, D. R., Masterson, E. A., & Themann, C. L. (2021). Prevalence of hearing protection device non-use among noise-exposed U.S. workers in 2007 and 2014. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 64(12), 1002-1017.
This chart shows the percentage of workers not wearing their hearing protection when exposed to occupational noise by large occupation group.

To reduce these percentages, the five critical barriers to wearing hearing protection must be addressed, including communication with others, comfort, convenience, climate (safety culture) and cost. Interventions include increasing awareness in industries and occupations with smaller proportions of noise-exposed workers; performing repeated trainings on the risks of noise and proper use of hearing protection; providing a variety of hearing protection device choices for workers; fit-testing to ensure proper fit and to increase self-efficacy in using hearing protection; and providing management support for compliance.

Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Elizabeth A. Masterson, is a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Research Epidemiologist and National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) Expert. Visit NHCA at: https://www.hearingconservation.org/.

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