Factsheets

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for Hearing, Health and Safety

Updated August 2023

Introduction

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is vital to maintain the health of swine farm workers who are continuously exposed to loud noises. It is the farm ownership’s responsibility to provide PPE to these farm workers, and to ensure that all people on the farm are effectively trained in PPE use and compliance. The objective of this article is to identify the tasks on the farm that require hearing protective devices, and to describe the kinds of PPE available for swine farm workers.

Objective

  • Understand the legal regulations surrounding Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for hearing health.
  • Identify the tasks on the swine farm require that require PPE for hearing health.
  • Learn how to use the different types of hearing protective devices that are available to swine farm workers.

Noise exposure on the swine farm

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), noise exposure is detrimental to hearing health when exceeding 85 decibels (dB) for long periods. Several tasks on the swine farm exceed this OSHA-defined threshold, including heat checking, piglet processing, snout snaring, power washing, and feed milling (Humann et al., 2005; Achutan and Tubbs, 2007). Workers who regularly engage in these tasks would benefit from farm participation in a Hearing Conservation Program (as defined by OSHA Standard 1910.95). The Hearing Conservation Program encompasses workplace and worker monitoring, and farm provision of regular audiometric testing, hearing protection, and training materials to workers at no cost.

Types of hearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

There are three main types of hearing protective devises that help reduce the risk of ear harm in a farm operation: Foam ear plugs, earmuffs, and semi-aural devices (also called canal caps).

When hearing protective devices are properly fitted, the sound of your own voice should change, becoming deeper, hollow, or muffled. If you don’t hear the change, or if it isn’t the same in both ears, you haven’t obtained a proper fit and acoustic seal in either one or both ears.

  1. Foam Ear Plugs (Figure 1)
  • Fit: Foam earplugs expand and will conform to fit your ears. Foam earplugs may be disposable, or they may be re-useable with washing. Foam earplugs are small and can easily fit in your pocket where they’ll be easy to access when you need them.
  • Insertion: Roll and squeeze the plug lengthwise with your fingers. Reach over your head with one hand and pull the top of your ear up to open the ear canal. Insert the plug into your ear and hold it there until it seals. Foam plugs will expand to seal the ear canal.
  • Care: Keep plugs clean. Insert them with clean hands. You can clean plugs with soap and water but never wear them when they are wet. When plugs become hard or damaged throw them away.

Figure 1. Photo of foam ear plugs.

  1. Earmuffs (Figure 2)
  • Fit: Muffs resemble stereo headphones with adjustable foam-filled or liquid-filled plastic cushions that cover the ears. Make sure the cushions fit snugly against your head. Keep hair from getting between the cushions and your head. In most cases the best protection is achieved with the earmuff band worn on top of the head rather than behind the head or under the chin. Cotton pads are available that fit inside the earmuff to absorb perspiration and increase comfort. If you wear glasses, the seal of the earmuffs will be broken, and they will be less effective in providing noise protection. If you wear glasses, talk to your supervisor about using a different type of hearing protection.
  • Care: Make sure your earmuffs stay clean. Clean cushions with a damp cloth or paper towel. A dirty device can cause serious skin irritation and ear infection. Replace cushions when they become hard or damaged, or after 3 months of routine use as recommended by the manufacturers.

Figure 2. Photo of ear muffs.

  1. Semi Aural Devices (Figure 3)
  • Description: Semi-aural, also called canal caps, consist of pods or flexible tips on a lightweight headband. Because they are quick to put on and take off and easy to store around the neck, they are ideal for intermittent use. They provide less protection than either plugs or muffs and aren’t usually recommended for continuous long-term wearing.
  • Fit: Hold the large ends of the pods and swivel them to direct the tips into the ear canal openings. Firmly push and wiggle the pods into the canals until a snug seal is obtained. Pulling on the outer ear while pushing on the pods will be helpful to most wearers.
  • Care: Most semi-aural devices can be cleaned in the same way earplugs are cleaned. Since the headband holds the tips in place to provide an acoustic seal, don’t tamper with it or the protection the device provides may be reduced.

Figure 3. Photo of semi aural device

Additional information about hearing protective devices

The best hearing protection is obtained by wearing earplugs and earmuffs together. It generally takes 10 days to get used to hearing protection, just as it takes a while to get used to a pair of new shoes. Improperly worn hearing protection devices may not reduce noise levels. Hearing aids are NOT hearing protectors. Persons with normal hearing always can detect some sound while wearing hearing protection devices.

Summary

Several tasks on the swine farm produce noises at volumes that can be detrimental to human hearing. It is the farm’s responsibility to provide hearing protective devices to farm workers to maintain their hearing health. Further, it is the farm’s responsibility to ensure that all farm workers are trained to use hearing devices correctly. The best hearing protection comes from using earplugs and earmuffs together, yet hearing protection is a personal choice and is influenced by noise level, comfort, and the compatibility for both the worker and the environment. Accordingly, the best hearing protective device is the one that farm workers use consistently and correctly. To that end, offering multiple hearing PPE choices to farm workers provides the best protection of hearing health.

References and Citations

Achutan C., and R.L. Tubbs. 2007. A task-based assessment of noise levels at a swine confinement. Journal of Agromedicine. 12(2):55-65. doi:10.1300/J096v12n02_07

Humann, M.J., K.J. Donham, M.L. Jones, C. Achutan, and B.J. Smith. 2005. Occupational noise exposure assessment in intensive swine farrowing systems: Dosimetry, octave band, and specific task analysis. Journal of Agromedicine. 10(1):23-37. doi: 10.1300/J096v10n01_04

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Occupational noise exposure: Standard number 1910.95. Available at: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.95. Accessed 8 June 2023.