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3M champions best-practice hearing protection

3M champions best-practice hearing protection

The 3M Personal Safety Division is actively promoting awareness of onsite hearing conservation and workers’ auditory health through its innovative fit-test system.

Despite regulatory efforts, occupational noise-induced hearing loss remains a prevalent issue within the Australian construction industry. The persistent need for hearing protection devices in the sector, driven by challenges such as dynamic work environments and the transient nature of the workforce, emphasises the urgency for proactive measures to address this enduring issue. This is where the 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System plays a crucial role, providing a solution that not only upholds best practices but also surpasses traditional hearing conservation models, supported by education and science.

As a longstanding advocate for best-practice in hearing protection, 3M’s Personal Safety Division has consistently led efforts in the prevention of occupational noise-induced hearing loss across various industries. Going beyond the sale of hearing protection, this division collaborates with sites and businesses to drive success of their hearing conservation programs.

Julie Toseski, occupational hygienist – application engineer specialist at the 3M Personal Safety Division, highlights the 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System as a key component in hearing conservation.

“The 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System rapidly assesses the effectiveness of 3M hearing protectors for individual workers,” explains Toseski. “It quantitatively measures the noise reduction (attenuation) provided by the hearing protector as it is worn during testing, offering valuable and instant insights into the level of protection each worker receives.”

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Responding to significant concerns regarding noise exposure and its impact on workers’ health and following an extensive period of public consultation in 2022, the NSW Government has approved the implementation of Clause 58 – Audiometric Testing under the WHS Regulation 2017. From this date, businesses that frequently require workers to use hearing protection against hazardous noise exceeding workplace exposure standards are to conduct regular audiometric assessments for their workforce. The person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) is responsible for organising and funding these hearing tests.

“The recent mandate aims to foster early detection and prevention of hearing damage among construction workers, placing a high priority on their health and safety,” says Toseski. “This, hopefully, creates a safer and more sustainable work environment industry-wide.”

Toseski highlights that 3M has been a pioneer in championing hearing conservation practices long before the mandate, driven by the company’s commitment to raising awareness and educating about the importance of correctly fitting ear protection in the workplace.

“We recognise that the most effective way to drive early detection and prevention is through education, a critical aspect for various reasons,” adds Toseski. “First and foremost, education helps prevent hearing damage.”

“The 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System empowers workers to fully grasp the significance of properly fitting hearing protection, maximising the effectiveness of noise reduction, and ultimately preventing hearing damage and loss among workers.”

Education can also instil a ‘sense of agency’ among workers, Toseski explains, nurturing an enhanced workplace safety culture, resulting in compliance with WHS regulations.

Furthermore, Toseski underscores the importance of educating workers about the long-term health impacts and consequences of hazardous noise exposure. This imperative involves not only raising awareness about auditory effects of hazardous noise exposure but also non-auditory effects, including the potential risks of cardiovascular diseases and cognitive decline.

“Promoting awareness among workers about these potential effects can help contribute to a worker’s sense of agency, where they are proactively safeguarding their health through the consistent use of properly fitted and proactively worn hearing protection when required,” she says.

In Australia, traditional hearing protection testing methods evaluate the attenuation a product offers for a general population in accordance with the AS/NZS 1270 standard. This generally involves assembling a group of individuals with no specialised industry knowledge or regular exposure to hearing protection. The data collected from these test subjects is then averaged to determine the SLC80 (Sound Level Conversion valid for 80 per cent of wearers). This means that one in five workers is still at risk.

The 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System assesses the effectiveness of hearing protectors for individual workers. (Image: 3M)
The 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System assesses the effectiveness of hearing protectors for individual workers. (Image: 3M)

The 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System goes beyond the one-size-fits-all approach by enabling individualised hearing protection fit testing. As the fit of hearing protection can change daily, fit testing becomes crucial in confirming that each worker’s protection is correctly positioned over or in their ear, tailored to the unique size and shape of their ear canal and head. The objective of this testing is to ensure the adequacy of attenuation for each individual, moving away from a generic assessment to a personalised one.

The system employs Field Microphone-in-Real Ear (F-MIRE) technology, providing an objective means of evaluating attenuation. During the assessment process, the tester wears a pair of modified 3M probed hearing protectors connected to a dual-element microphone. A broadband noise is emitted from a loudspeaker, and the microphone precisely gauges the signal both inside the ear canal and outside the earplug. Within just five seconds, the system calculates the variance between these measurements, presenting the individual being tested with their Personal Attenuation Rating (PAR).

“With E-A-Rfit technology, we’re able to help sites understand a lot more in regard to the level of protection their workers are receiving on an individual level, in real work conditions,” says Toseski. “Hearing protection needs to be looked at holistically, given there’s so much variability involved – every employee, job, head shape and ear canal is unique.”

“The 3M E-A-Rfit Validation System allows us to eliminate some of that variability by focusing on each individual’s needs rather than those of a population.”

The system also provides the site with a baseline, which is crucial for understanding where hearing conservation programs stand. After the first test, sites and employers can analyse the data to identify workgroups or similar exposure groups (SEGs) that may need more attention. This data-driven approach enables the implementation of targeted interventions, such as more regular testing or monthly toolbox talks, based on the performance of different SEGs.

Research indicates that hearing protection fit testing can significantly impact the effectiveness of hearing conservation programs. In 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Alliance of the National Hearing Conservation Association and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) highlighted the importance of individual fit testing in a Best Practice Bulletin. This bulletin emphasised that individuals who receive positive feedback during the fitting process are more likely to have a positive attitude towards protecting their hearing and to use hearing protection consistently and correctly at work. These positive outcomes have the potential to reduce noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace.

The 3M E-A-Rfit Dual Validation System addresses not only the immediate challenges of hearing protection in dynamic work environments but also the long-term challenge of keeping workers safe throughout their careers. It focuses on personalised fit testing to ensure the effectiveness of hearing protection for all workers.

By combining technology, education and a hands-on approach to hearing conservation, 3M’s Personal Safety Division continues to lead the way in promoting a safer and more sustainable work environment for workers across various industries.

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