Noise exposure is the biggest contributory factor to hearing loss, even age related loss is down to an accumulation of lifetime noise. The most recent PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) Regulation (EU) 2016/425 reclassified “harmful noise” as Category 3, alongside risk of drowning, electrocution, bullet and knife wounds.
While it has long been recognised that noise exposure can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the head), other health effects are now becoming more apparent such as feelings of isolation, depression and even dementia. A recent study reported that having even a mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk, whilst a moderate loss tripled risk, and those people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia. In fact, a Lancet report published last year identified that preventing hearing loss is the single biggest modifiable factor to mitigate early-onset dementia. In short, noise exposure is seriously damaging to health and well-being so reducing our exposure to noise and protecting our hearing is essential to safe-guarding our future health.
Several studies have linked cumulative noise exposure to cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Given the high numbers affected by these diseases and the impact on our health services reducing noise as a contributory factor could literally be life saving.
In many work and leisure scenarios hearing protection devices (ear plugs or earmuffs) are the only solution provided for individuals to be able to reduce noise exposure and protect their hearing and general health. Manufacturers of hearing protection products are legally obliged to provide information with their products to indicate the potential protection each device can achieve. These are usually reported on products as a Single Number Rating (SNR) of protection, which is a laboratory derived average attenuation figure. Studies have, however, shown that real-life performance is often much lower than the specified performance rating, which can mean a user is unknowingly being put at risk of hearing and health damage. Employers can also often select hearing protection devices for their highest attenuation properties, leading to overprotection, resulting in audibility issues, impeding communication, and putting workers at risk of accidents and injury.
The UK Hearing Conservation Association believe that hearing protector fit testing is a useful assurance methodology that could be added to an employer’s hearing conservation programme to give both the user and their employer the opportunity to measure how much attenuation their individual protection actually delivers
There has been an emergence of commercially available systems that offer the capability of individually fit testing hearing protectors to assess how much attenuation an individual user is receiving based on the type of hearing protector, fitting technique and worker motivation. Hearing protection fit-test systems either calculate a Personal Attenuation Rating (PAR) which is directly comparable to SNR or deliver a pass/fail output and can do so in times ranging from a few minutes to under ten minutes depending on the method employed.
Since laboratory-based averages cannot be relied upon as accurate for individual users and given the importance of hearing protection as a commonly applied final level of protection against harmful noise; the UKHCA supports the concept of individual fit-testing although it cannot recommend any specific method.
The HCA has produced a guidance document which will help companies and individuals interested in fit testing for hearing protection to understand the benefits it can bring in assuring workers health and safety. It details the methods available and the importance of selecting both adequate and suitable protection devices.