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Listen to the experts when it comes to hearing protection

31 October 2017

Bill Dawe of RS Components looks at the new regulations concerning hearing protection and how leading suppliers are helping to confine it to the past thanks to new products and support programmes.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) fact sheet (updated in February 2017), unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual global cost of 750 billion international dollars. The WHO recognised that 1.1 billion young people (aged between 12–35 years) are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to noise in recreational settings.

But recreational settings are just half the story. Harmful noise has been identified as one of the top three health hazards in the workplace; and, as a result, in 2016, harmful noise was officially recognised as an irreversible health hazard within the new European PPE Regulation, which puts hearing protection in the same high-risk categorisation as respiratory protection and fall protection. Indeed, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) explains: “Throughout all industry, industrial hearing loss remains the occupational disease with the highest number of civil claims accounting for about 75% of all occupational disease claims.”

Hearing loss presents multiple functional and socio-economic issues to both the individual and the employer. These issues and their effects are widely documented at both industry, national and international level, with agreement across all levels that interventions to prevent, identify and address hearing loss are not only cost-effective, but can also bring great benefit to individuals and their employers.


Changes are already in motion in Europe to bring existing legislation into line with current business practices. These changes are seeing the replacement of the 20+ year old Personal Protective Equipment Directive (89/686/EEC) with a new regulation ((EU) 2016/425). This new regulation will bring added confidence to users that the products they are wearing are able to provide reassured protection.

Published in 2016, the regulation will move into a transition period in 2018 – where the old directive and the new regulation will operate in parallel – but in April 2019 the implementation period begins and products placed on the market will be required to meet the new regulation.

During the transition period, and in the run up to this implementation period, safety officers will need to make sure they are buying hearing protection from a manufacturer that complies with the new regulation. They will also need to ensure that their workers are trained in the correct selection of personal protective equipment –already an essential requirement under the PPE User Directive 89/656/EEC.

The need

Hearing protection must never be used as an alternative to controlling noise. Employers are duty bound to remove or reduce risks to health and safety from noise at work.

Looking at the food industry as an example, the HSE, supported by hearing loss civil claim data from one of the main trade unions representing workers in the food and drink industries, has listed a number of processes that can pose a threat to workers’ hearing. These processes – which have many parallels across other industries – include glass bottling lines, pneumatic tools, milling, blast freezers and packaging machinery. The HSE recommends reducing the noise at the source, with insulation, panels, dampers and mounts, but it is not always possible to reduce the noise to a non-harmful level. This is where the use of PPE hearing solutions comes into play.

What is available?

Employers and their employees have a number of options available, which should be chosen based on their suitability for the application and the specific requirements of the environment. These options include disposable earplugs, reusable earplugs, banded earplugs, ear defenders and communication ear defenders – one of the big issues with hearing protection is people lifting their ear defenders to listen to speech, which then allows the dangerous noise in.


Simply supplying access to these PPE options on their own is not enough. Employers must also ensure that their employees know how to deploy the most suitable equipment and how to fit and use it properly in order to gain the most positive effect.

An employer has multiple obligations under the legislation regarding the provision of personal protective equipment:

  • It must be appropriate for risks involved
  • It must fit the wearer correctly after any necessary adjustment
  • It must take into account ergonomic requirement
  • The employer shall inform worker of risks against PPE which wearing PPE protects him/her
  • The employer shall arrange for training in the correct use of PPE
  • The employer must ensure the compatibility of PPE against different hazards.

Supply, training and back up

Leading PPE suppliers, such as 3M, provide informative back-up material, posters and data sheets that explain best practice and the correct deployment of the various solutions. The company also offers personal attenuation rating (PAR) validation systems and a range of training services, including presentations, video seminars, webinars and fit-testing programmes. It explains: “In order to achieve the desired attenuation, hearing protectors should be fit tested. This fit testing plays a valuable role in training and in achieving and documenting an effective hearing conservation programme in the workplace.”

RS Components, as a leading distributor of PPE equipment, including a significant range of 3M products, also offers a wide variety of support information, which is linked from its PPE landing page: http://sg.rs-online.com/web/generalDisplay.html?id=i/personal-protective-equipment.

One of the most useful documents is its PPE selection guide, developed in collaboration with multiple suppliers, including 3M. The 50-page ‘Personal Protective Equipment Selection Guide’ http://docs-asia.electrocomponents.com/webdocs/1581/0900766b81581243.pdf illustrates the depth and breadth of the RS personal protection offering in a way which will allow customers to make a clear choice based on their precise needs and applications.

11 pages are devoted to hearing protection, with the first three covering assessments, product types and the various applicable European standards. Users are then presented with clear and unambiguous product tables, which highlight all the primary brands – including the company’s own RS Pro brand – the products they offer and what functional characteristics they exhibit based on the explanations in the introductions.

The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is on the decline, thanks to advances in machine design, operator-environment modifications, contemporary PPE equipment and the support on offer. According the HSE, in the UK, the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme (IIDB) had 100 new claims in 2015, compared to 130 and 120 in 2014 and 2013 respectively. Indeed, noise induced hearing loss has fallen by 50% since 2006. This new regulation coupled to innovation and support from leading suppliers such as RS and 3M should see this figure drop even further.