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Solving hearing protection problems

How Hearing Loss Happens Ear Diagram

What is “acoustical confusion,” and what are some solutions to this problem?

Responding is Garry G. Gordon, audiologist, and CEO, E.A.R. Inc., Boulder, CO.

I’m sure most people have experienced environmental situations in which their ability to communicate was hindered. Such places include restaurants, concerts, movies, meetings, work assignments and even home environments.

Should one have mild, moderate or severe hearing loss, life predictably becomes more complicated and usually begins with denial, followed by withdrawal.

Have you ever had your spouse or a friend say, “Turn down the TV,” “Your turn signal is still on” or “You need a hearing aid”?

How about a plant manager who said, “I told you to meet at 7 a.m., not 11 a.m.”? If such exposures continue without adequate hearing devices, the risk of a recordable threshold shift or an error stemming from a communication breakdown rises.

A common response is, “I hear you but I don’t understand!” The same scenario applies to equipment failures because the mechanic or engineer could not hear critical sounds coming from machines. As a result, it’s common for employees to alter their ear protection to hear better.

So what’s the problem? Some call it acoustical confusion. We are witnessing noise-induced hearing loss at an all-time high. This includes young and old. The current ramifications of excessive noise exposure could not be more apparent, and when an employee has hearing issues at home, similar issues should be expected at work.

With more than 35 years of professional experience in the industrial and recreational hearing healthcare markets, we decided to review many of the responses our clients fill out to questions regarding their hearing acuity. Of particular note were the clients who said they don’t hear well at home, work or play, and when they are required to wear hearing protection, their situational awareness diminishes. As a result, many alter their protection or don’t install it properly.

We also spoke with several of the audiometric teams that provide services to industrial accounts and asked how they review their results. In most cases, they said all audiograms are reviewed to identify an employee’s current hearing status, as well as identify recordable threshold shifts that could result in a claim or need to see a doctor. There was no evidence, for the most part, that audiograms were reviewed to identify those with the untreated hearing loss, which could contribute to communication breakdowns or poor situational awareness on the job.

So, a big question to pose to the market is: How many errors or safety issues are a result of inadequate hearing acuity or poorly selected hearing protection devices?

A review of current and forthcoming products suggests numerous options may provide improved situational awareness and better communications. The same goes for those needing amplification when away from work. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a new classification of over-the-counter hearing aids and personal sound amplification products are emerging quickly at affordable prices. Not being able to hear well – on or off the job – can be considered a serious safety concern, and the options available to minimize acoustical confusion are being made available at affordable prices. After all, hearing loss often is more noticeable than the products that can assist.