18 June 2020

Construction companies to mandate active hearing protection with noise monitoring

By Dr David Greenberg, Eave Founder and CEO

Noise induced hearing loss is the number one occupational disease in Europe because traditional solutions are failing. So why are we still largely silent on the issue?

Over 46 million people in Europe work in harmful levels of noise. Occupations most at risk of harmful levels of noise exposure include construction, metal, electrical and textile processing. The higher the level of noise, and the longer individuals are exposed to it, the greater the risk they have of suffering harm from it. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is the most common occupational disease in Europe and the Health and Safety Executive estimates that over 2 million people in the UK are exposed to harmful noise levels at work.

The number of people in the UK suffering from hearing damage as a result of exposure to noise at work was estimated at 509,000 in a Medical Research Council survey. NIHL is permanent and incurable and has been recognised as an occupational disease since the 18th century, among copper workers hammering metal, blacksmiths, and shipbuilders. We can’t stay silent about noise induced hearing loss and the failure of traditional solutions any longer.

Why is the adoption of Active hearing protection with noise exposure monitoring so critical?

We already know what harmful levels of noise exposure can mean for an individual. The dangers of conventional solutions are perhaps less well understood as the alternatives have until now been limited. The 2018/19 RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) statistics show that of the 147 reported fatal injuries to workers in Great Britain, the largest percentage came from the construction industry (30 people) and 48.3% (71 people) of all fatal injuries are linked to a failure in situational awareness. It is not known how many of those killed were wearing conventional passive hearing protection at the time of the fatal accident.

Aside from the immediate, physical danger of working on a construction site with compromised auditory sensing and perceptual abilities, exposure to harmful levels of noise can have long-term, “silent” implications that include stress, fatigue, isolation, elevated blood pressure, dementia, hearing loss and tinnitus. Hearing damage gradually increases with exposure to noise and it can take a number of years of damage from noise for a person to realise they have become deaf. What is the current legal requirement? ‘Passive hearing protection’.

The protection and preservation of operatives hearing against noise exposure is already a legal requirement and therefore, the use of hearing protection is required whenever there is a risk of noise exposure. However, this mandate means there is widespread adoption of conventional passive hearing protection such as:

  1. foam ear-plugs
  2. custom moulded ear-plugs
  3. passive ear-muffs

While well-meaning, these approaches to hearing protection actually degrade auditory aspects of task performance while not providing the necessary or expected levels of protection. Any impairment, impediment, or distortion of normal hearing raises the risk of the operative not detecting, identifying, recognising or localising a hazard. He or she might not hear a hazard warning signal or approaching vehicle, or not adequately understand communications from other personnel.

What is the solution? ‘Active hearing protection’.

Those required to operate in noisy environments should rely on Active hearing protection if the source of noise cannot be managed in another way.      

Active hearing protection uses an electronic sound transmission circuit to provide a dynamic level-dependant degree of sound to the wearer, using a battery-powered series of integrated speakers and microphones. By controlling the level of noise exposure, it resolves the issues presented by conventional passive hearing protection.

The benefits of active hearing protection, compared to conventional passive hearing protection, include:

  1. more natural hearing for the user
  2. improved speech communications
  3. improved signal detection
  4. reduced noise-induced annoyance
  5. protection from loud noise

Active hearing protection applies the correct level of protection automatically. Level-dependent, electronic hearing protection is specifically designed to maintain or even enhance one’s auditory capabilities as compared to conventional passive hearing protection. It is important to remember that noise exposure and the occupational diseases that can result are preventable if employers are able to apply effective noise control measures.

Can occupational deafness be prevented?

The harm caused by noise exposure at work is entirely preventable if:

  1. employers take action to reduce exposure to noise and provide personal hearing protection
  2. manufacturers design tools and machinery to operate more quietly
  3. employees make use of the personal hearing protection and other control measures supplied

The UK Construction sector is already beginning to shift away from using passive hearing protection and towards active hearing protection with integrated noise monitoring as an effective tool to prevent occupational deafness. Galliford Try Highways for example has made the decision to no longer carry the risk of conventional passive hearing protection and has implemented a policy mandating the use of Active hearing protection with noise monitoring on its work sites. It is no longer a question of if the shift to Active hearing protection will take place, only how fast will it happen.