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Don’t Play It by Ear When Caring for Hearing Protection

Various types of ear protection

Noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by one-time exposure to an intense sound as well as by continuous exposure to loud and long-lasting noises. And harmful levels are lower than most people realize. This is why it’s vital for workers to be protected every single time they’re exposed to damaging noises—because even one serious case of exposure can cause irreparable harm.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the US. Sometimes, companies might feel that providing hearing protection is enough when, in fact, PPE must be accompanied by proper training in its use and care.

Caring for hearing protection

Each workplace requiring hearing protection devices (HPDs) should have a use and care program to ensure that the HPD performs its job reliably and adequately.

When purchasing HPDs, everyone should follow the manufacturer’s instructions pertaining to the equipment use and maintenance, which can vary depending on the type and the manufacturer. But most rules require workers to inspect their HPD before each use and clean it at the end of their shift. Hearing protection should also be checked for wear and tear regularly.

Below are additional best practices for caring for specific types of hearing protection.

Earmuffs

  • If possible, disassemble ear muffs to clean. Depending on the materials and the manufacturer, earmuffs should be wiped with a damp cloth or washed with a mild liquid detergent in warm water (and rinsed) while making sure that the sound-attenuating material inside the ear cushions remains dry. Do not treat it with any other substances as this could cause degradation of the ear cushions.
  • Unless the manufacturer states otherwise, use a soft brush to remove dirt as it can harden the ear cushions.
  • Store in a safe, clean, cool space.
  • Even with great care, ear cushions and foam inserts in the earmuffs degrade over time and it’s important to replace them when needed. Depending on the manufacturer and the type of earmuff, this could be every 6 months. But with heavy use or in humid and demanding climates/conditions, inserts or cushions might need to be replaced every 3 or 4 months.  

Reusable earplugs

  • Washable, multiple-use earplugs should be washed every day with warm water (and, depending on the manufacturer, with mild soap) and patted dry with a towel.
  • Some plugs (depending on manufacturer’s recommendations) allow for squeezing excess moisture after washing. They should then be placed on a towel or a clean surface to air dry.
  • Do not treat earplugs with substances other than water (and possibly mild soap) to prevent degradation.
  • When not in use, store earplugs in their own, clean case.
  • With proper maintenance, some reusable earplugs can last up to 4 weeks.

Headband plugs/ear bands/banded earplugs

  • The pods/plugs/canal caps and bands should be wiped with a damp cloth after each use or washed with mild soap and warm water and patted dry. As with earmuffs, do not treat the earplugs with any other substances as they might cause degradation of the material.
  • Store them in a safe place or their own case to ensure that the headband doesn’t get bent, misshapen or twisted.
  • Depending on the manufacturer and maintenance, pods, plugs or caps might have to be replaced every 2-4 weeks. This helps ensure optimal performance and, by extension, optimal hearing protection.

Single-use earplugs

  • Discard earplugs at the end of each shift.

Inspections

HPDs need to be inspected before each use to ensure they’re not damaged or compromised in any way.

  • Earmuff earcups, cushions and inserts should be examined for cracks, splits and other visible damage or signs of being compromised. Earmuff cushions or inserts should be replaced when they lose their resilience or flexibility and are no longer pliable, or are visibly damaged. The HPD should be replaced in its entirety when the headband is stretched and no longer keeps the cushions firmly against the head.
  • Reusable earplugs should be inspected for damage, dirt, deformation, discoloration or extreme hardness and, if found to be compromised or dirty, they should be discarded immediately.
  • Headband plugs should be inspected for damage, dirt, deformation or extreme hardness and, if found to be compromised, they should be discarded immediately. The same is true if the band is damaged or no longer fits.
  • Single-use earplugs should be examined for dirt, damage or extreme hardness before their use and be immediately discarded if found to be compromised.

Workers must know how to take care of their PPE. This knowledge should be communicated to them during training and reinforced with subsequent refreshers or toolbox talks. A good PPE program must include relevant strategies for workplace noise protection to ensure that employees keep their hearing.

Caring about caring

Caring for and inspecting hearing protection devices does more than prolong the life of PPE and ensure that it’s effectively doing its job. Helping workers build a strong habit of cleaning and inspecting also increases the likelihood of them using the items when needed. Who wants to put dirty earplugs in their ear? And how comfortable will worn-out earcups be? This routine of looking at their PPE also gets people thinking about safety on a regular basis.

Cleaning PPE at the end of a shift means the items are ready to go the next day, and it could also instill a “safety is important” message before workers drive home—which for most tired workers is statistically the riskiest thing they’ll do all day. Having signage near the cleaning location could reinforce this message.

Inspecting PPE before each shift has a similar effect. Yes, PPE can be inspected when it’s clean, but that means missing out on an opportunity to get people thinking about safety and make sure they have their PPE in hand before they begin work. If issues are discovered, they can be resolved before they expose themselves to noise, not afterward.

These little habits may seem unimportant to workers at first, but if you help them understand the bigger picture about habits and their residual effects, and that it’s not just about caring for PPE but caring about themselves, then hopefully they’ll humor you until the habits are formed. After that, they’ll carry out the actions automatically as part of their standard daily routine.