The EU's new PPE Regulation (bit.ly/2jhGHo4) identifies workplace noise as a significant health risk, prompting a category change for hearing protection. The promotion of hearing conservation equipment to a higher level should give employers a fresh alert to the need for suitable protection and effective training.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified noise-induced hearing loss as being the most common permanent and preventable injury in the world and tinnitus as the third most serious non-fatal medical condition.
The new PPE Regulation was officially adopted in February 2016 and its provisions will come into force on 21 April 2018. It will supersede the previous PPE Directive, which was implemented into UK law as the Personal Protective Equipment (EC Directive) Regulations 1992. These include specific requirements that cover when workers should wear PPE. Hearing protection, however, is not covered explicitly; requirements are set out separately in the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (CNWR) 2005.
The CNWR define the noise level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones, and the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers' health and provide them with information and training. There is also an exposure limit value of 87 decibels, taking account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection, above which workers must not be exposed. But while employers are legally required to provide training, the CNWR doesn't specify the type of training. As a result, many employers simply provide guides and posters, which arguably have little impact.
Supplying protection does not discharge an employer's duty of care. If workers do not use it correctly, they can put their hearing at risk. Compared with many other injuries such as minor cuts, hearing damage barely receives a mention during safety and health briefings.
A step up
While the new PPE Regulation maintains the directive's three category levels for PPE: simple, intermediate and complex, it now associates PPE with risks rather than pieces of equipment.
Hearing protection was previously defined as category II -- intermediate -- along with high-visibility clothing, safety eyewear and head protection. It has now been moved up to the complex class, category III, where it joins equipment designed to protect against serious risks such as falls from height, chainsaw cuts and contact with substances hazardous to health.
The new regulation also reflects developments in technology and processes in the 20 years since the directive came into force. Crucially, unlike the directive, which had to be transposed into national law state by state, the new regulation is a binding legislative act and will apply automatically in its entirety across the EU.
Though the UK plans to withdraw from EU membership, the April 2018 date for application of the regulation is well within the two-year period for the exit negotiations. These will start early this year after the government invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. As the government has stated that all existing EU law will carry over directly into UK statute at Brexit, the PPE Regulation's provisions will be included in this transition, so will apply for the foreseeable future.
Rather than focusing just on manufacturers, the new regulation will apply to the entire supply chain, including importers, distributors and resellers. All parties will be required to take appropriate measures to ensure the PPE meets the latest standards. Importers and distributors will be obliged not to resell any PPE that they believe does not meet EU standards, but to report it to the relevant national authority.
The regulation introduces a five-year maximum validity period on EU-type examination certificates -- which certify categories II and III PPE as conforming with EU standards and fit to carry the CE marking. The time limit is significant because it means more regular and strict assessments of the quality of PPE. For safety managers who will procure hearing protection for the workforce, this move should provide greater confidence that the products meet the highest standards.
While the regulation does not say anything about PPE training and how it should be carried out, the fact that hearing protection has moved to category III should mean that it is taken more seriously by employers and perhaps motivate safety managers to look for the training support they need to ensure workers are properly equipped for noisy environments.
The starting point for effective hearing protection is to build a workplace culture that values hearing. Workers often focus on the task at hand and may not fully appreciate, for example, that exposure to a single loud noise can irreversibly damage hearing. The need to communicate overrides the need for protection so it is not uncommon to see workers remove an ear defender to talk to colleagues.
Providing workers with educational tools that help them to see the importance of hearing and what they could lose if they do not protect themselves sufficiently can positively influence behaviour. WHO research shows that people tend to take preventive actions if they experience symptoms of hearing loss or tinnitus. The use of audio files and videos to demonstrate the symptoms of hearing loss and toolbox talks to discuss the issues raises both the profile of hearing protection and sets the context for training.
Several studies, including research by Honeywell in collaboration with the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (bit.ly/2hNZxB5), have found that individual training is the most effective way to ensure safe attenuation levels. There is no one-size-fits-all earplug because ear shapes differ significantly between people and even on the same individual. It is best practice to provide earplugs in different sizes: small, medium, large and extra-large.
Hearing protection has now been moved up to the complex class, category III
One of the most common industry methods for measuring real-world attenuation for workers wearing earplugs is the single number rating (SNR), which is a population-based value that provides a very rough estimate of the potential attenuation that can be achieved from hearing protection devices when they are used correctly. But the SNR becomes irrelevant if the individual has fitted their earplug incorrectly.
The best way to ensure the necessary noise attenuation is to have someone look into the worker's ear and give guidance on the size and shape of the earplug. This fit-testing only takes five to ten minutes per person. Workers' own motivation and understanding of their impact on hearing protection increases once they have gone through fit-testing and seen how much attenuation they get.
The development of new technology involving fit checks and sound exposure monitoring mean that companies can glean more accurate information on actual sound exposure levels. Some technologies can activate an automatic fit-test during the start-up, which tells the user when they have fitted their hearing protection correctly. It also monitors the worker's continuous sound exposure, alerting the user when the permissible sound exposure level has been reached.