by Stephen Wheatley, HearAngel

Do people in your company use headphones (which includes earpieces and earbuds) as part of their work or are they allowed to wear headphones to listen to their own content whilst they are at work?

If so, you need to be aware of the risks associated with this and take steps to protect your staff (and avoid a compensation claim against your business).

Certain sounds can damage our hearing and listening via headphones can exacerbate this.

So, if your staff use headphones, or work in a noisy environment, or are exposed to loud noises on a regular basis, then it’s your responsibility to help protect their hearing.

Human beings have about 15,000 auditory hair cells in each ear at birth; you don’t get any more and when they are gone, they are gone – and so is your hearing. Exposure to large sound doses regularly and repeatedly can cause irreparable damage to the hair cells within our ears. This damage can take a long time to show up and may be ‘silently’ affecting us.

A sound dose is a complex calculation taking into account how long you listen for, how loud you listen and the energy content of what you listen to.

For example; speech is relatively low energy content, so you can listen for a long period of time at a relatively high-volume level without experiencing a particularly high sound dose,

However, electronic dance music has a high energy content so will give you a large sound dose in a relatively short period of time.

As a result of a number of high-profile campaigns, the majority of headphone users are now aware of the risks. But taking action hasn’t, until recently, been that easy as the only option available has been a simple volume level warning on their device, which, if obeyed makes the content inaudible in many listening situations.

Trains for example, can be so loud that many users are forced to ignore their device’s warning and turn their volume to a damaging level on a daily basis. Long term, this will damage a user’s hearing for good.

This is important, as you only have to look around you to see that increasing numbers of people are wearing headphones and data suggest that they are wearing them for longer and longer periods of time.

You, your staff and your colleagues are likely to be typical of the general population, with a high percentage wearing headphones to listen to music, to game, and to watch videos – often during their commute.

In addition, your team may also be experiencing high levels of sound exposure in bars, clubs, at gigs, sporting events or perhaps even from their hobbies, especially if they enjoy shooting or motorsport.

This level of recreational sound exposure could be harming their hearing permanently, without either them or you knowing it.

Let me give you an example if they commute by underground and use a normal pair of headphones the safe listening period could be between 30 and 45 minutes in any 24 hour period.

So imagine, they leave work, travel home for 45 minutes, spend two hours gaming then go to a gig, returning to work the following morning. In a say 15 hour period they could easily have had four to six times their safe sound dose exposure for a 24 hour period.

They then spend a day at work where they have to or are allowed to wear headphones, which contributes further to their sound dose exposure.

At the end of the working day they press repeat and on it goes.

So why should this be of any concern to you?

One of your colleagues (or maybe ex-colleagues) who is suffering from hearing loss engages with a no-win, no-fee lawyer to pursue you and your company for compensation related to hearing damage which they claim was caused whilst they were in your employ.

What is your reaction?

What was the role of the colleague when they worked for your company?

Were they provided with hearing protection in line with the 2005 Noise at Work Regulations (NaW) and were they properly trained?

If your answer to the above question is ‘no’ then your defence will be weak and the chances are that the courts will find in favour of the colleague and they will be awarded damages even though in the example given your company was only responsible for a relatively small part of their sound dose exposure.

If your answer is yes and the colleague was protected in line with the NaW you have met the ‘duty of care’ standard and the chances are that the court will realise that the hearing damage sustained was probably from recreational sound exposure

Those people in your company who are required to wear headphones at work must be protected in line with the NaW Regulations.

But those who are allowed to wear headphones to listen to their own content are still owed a ‘duty of care’.

So, what can you do?

  • Forbid them from wearing headphones, however that seems a little draconian and would undoubtably be unpopular.
  • Supply them with good quality headphones for use at work with built in volume limiters or preferably personal dosimetry in line with the NaW Regulations. Suitable products are available from Canford, Puro and LimitEar.
  • Provide them with protection for their own headphones.
    1. If they are using their smartphone they could download a hearing safeguarding app for headphone users, such as HearAngel, which will give them information on their exposure, much as a FitBit monitors physical activity. The app will let them know when they are overdoing it and enable them to make informed decisions and protect them automatically if required to do so.
    2. Alternatively you could provide them with retro fit volume limiters or preferably personal dosimetry in line with the NaW Regulations from LimitEar.
  • Provide information about choosing the right headphones, or if you are supplying them, then be sure to choose the right type:
    1. If they listen, as more than 30% of people do, on public transport, they should consider upgrading from ear buds to some good quality over-ear headphones. The sound quality will usually be better and the over-ear cups will reduce the background noise so that they can listen at a lower level, extending their safe listening period. These are also ideal if they work in a noisy open-plan office.
    2. If they travel on very noisy public transport or work in a noisy environment, they might want to consider getting some active noise cancelling headphones. These headphones use clever electronics to reduce the background noise even more allowing them to further reduce their listening level and extend the safe listening period.

Finally, it would be worth considering a hearing test for all new employees to give you a starting point, supported with periodic routine testing to identify any hearing damage as early as possible.

By taking these simple steps you can protect both your staff, and your business and avoid an unwarranted hearing loss claims against you and your company.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Wheatley is CEO of HearAngel/LimitEar Ltd, a company which develops technologies that protect the hearing of occupational and recreational headphone users. He has been awarded several patents for hearing safeguarding inventions for headphone users and is a Director Trustee of the UK Hearing Conservation Association and lead for their Lifestyle Special Interest Group.

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www.hearangel.com

www.limitear.com

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