Listen Up! From the NHCA Experts…

Hearing Protection – Risk of Overprotection

By: Susan Cooper, CavCom, Audiologist/Vice President and National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) Expert

Do you find employees frequently removing hearing protectors in noisy areas when trying to communicate? Do workers resist wearing earplugs or earmuffs because they feel isolated from their surroundings—even unsafe?

Despite best intentions, it is possible that your current hearing protectors are providing too much noise reduction for the work environment, commonly known as “overprotection.” Overprotection can keep workers from performing their jobs safely and efficiently. Miscommunications or missed cues may lead to production errors/inefficiencies and, even worse, accidents and injuries.

Example of custom earplug with a high-fidelity uniform attenuation filter (courtesy of CavCom).

Historically, conventional wisdom dictated the higher the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), the better. But according to the OSHA, 80-90% of general industry employees work in moderate noise. In these cases, employees typically need only 10-15dB noise reduction to effectively protect their hearing.

It has long been known that the NRR is a poor predictor of real-world performance. Recent research has revealed that even NRR de-rating schemes fail to accurately predict real-world protection for the majority of workers. For these reasons, individual fit-testing is now the recommended best practice for hearing conservation programs. Learn more about available technologies at NHCA’s International Hearing Protector Fit-Testing Symposium (in-person/virtual options) [See above for details.].

Looking for solutions to avoid overprotection? Consider radio communication headsets/earsets and high-fidelity hearing protectors that are uniform (“flat”) attenuation devices. Uniform attenuation means the hearing protector is specially designed to reduce sounds evenly across a broad frequency range. The result is that reduced sounds have roughly the same quality as the original sounds, only quieter. When it comes to speech, high frequency consonants are attenuated less, reducing the chance of mumbled or muffled speech.

The best sign of success is when your workers are wearing their hearing protection correctly and consistently—whenever they are exposed to noise.

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Photo demonstrating worker having difficulty hearing radio (trying to remove earplug to “hear better.”) (Photo courtesy NHCA)

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