The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide hearing protection for workers exposed to hazardous noise. Best practice has shown that providing a variety of hearing protectors improves compliance. But smart employers will also encourage employees to take hearing protectors home, says Howard Leight's Theresa Y. Schulz, PhD.
"Noise hazards are not exclusive to the workplace," said Dr. Schulz, hearing conservation manager for Howard Leight, "but compensation claims for noise-induced hearing loss often are. Lawn mowers, chain saws, home workshop tools, even personal listening devices (e.g., mp3 players) and cranked up stereo systems can all add to hearing damage, but it's usually the employer who ends up paying the price."
Encouraging workers to wear hearing protection off the job as well as on makes sense for other reasons as well, says Schulz. "One of the most difficult tasks safety managers face with regard to hearing conservation is convincing employees of the risk. Talking about noise hazards present in everyday activities brings the hearing conservation message 'home' in a very meaningful way. It gets workers' attention, helps make earplug use habitual and, more often than not, gets the neighbors' attention as well."
It is also important that the "take 'em home" message be overt and not just tacit, said Dr. Schulz. "Employees should not be made to feel that they are pilfering, or that management is simply looking the other way," she said. Rather, the message should be loud and clear. She recommends posting signs by disposable earplug dispensers recommending employees 'Pocket a Pair for Home,' and making particular mention of the policy in training sessions and group meetings.
"Any excuse to talk about hearing conservation is one more opportunity to drive the safety message home," she said. "And specifying which hearing protectors are freely available for home use can help control costs."
What types of earplugs are best to offer? Schulz says that single-use foam earplugs cost less per pair, but multiple-use earplugs, which can be washed and reused many times, can be more economical, especially in an off-the-job setting where use is less frequent. Multiple-use earplugs also can be easier to insert. "But everyone's ears are different," Schulz said. "An earplug that is comfortable and effective for one person may be uncomfortable and ineffective for another. Just as offering choices works best for workplace compliance, it is also best for home use."