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Center develops tool to help service members select optimal hearing protection

Marine holding and aiming a rifle U.S. Marine Corps PFC. Andy Solis, a rifleman with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (2nd LAR), 2d Marine Division, wears hearing protection while firing his rifle at a notional enemy target during a live fire range on the National Training Center 20-05 in Ft. Irwin, California, March 22, 2020. The National Training Center is a unique opportunity that allows Marines and Sailors to train with and against a peer competitor in a conventional combat operational setting. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Elijah J. Abernathy)

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Researchers studying hearing loss over the last decade have found that service members often don’t wear hearing protection because they think the devices will block out critical sounds that are necessary to complete the mission.

This competing need to protect hearing while maintaining situational awareness makes wearing hearing protection an ongoing challenge, according to internal surveys conducted by military audiologists from each of the service branches.

“While hearing loss is a concern, we find that some service members accept it as a risk when more pressing or life-threatening duties depend upon having no hearing limitations or barriers,” said Dr. Theresa Schulz, prevention branch chief for the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence.

To address this challenge, the center has embarked on a two-phase initiative to develop an evidence-based Hearing Protection Device Evaluated Products List (HPD EPL) that will help service members and noise-exposed DoD civilians select the most appropriate personal protective equipment for their environment and missions. The overall initiative is to devise standardized methods for selecting hearing protection based on noise reduction, communication, and situational awareness requirements.

The first phase of the project was completed in March 2018, which included creating and distributing a product poster and guidebook that illustrates how to select a variety of passive hearing protection, such as earplugs, for continuous and impulsive (blasts or explosions) noise.

“The passive protection list is helping hearing health professionals, industrial hygienists, and safety professionals to better select and recommend passive hearing protection that is most effective for the noise environment and hearing-critical tasks service members perform,” explained Schulz.

In addition to the poster and guidebook, the center participated in the development and publication of a national standard that provides methods for assessing how well open ear and head-worn devices can locate the direction of sound.

“For military members, being able to locate the direction and distance to gunfire, for instance, is critical in determining the location of enemies,” said Schulz.

According to project lead Kari Buchanan, an industrial hygienist with the center, phase 2 of the project will involve updating the guidebook to incorporate more tested devices, such as tactical communication hearing protectors, and developing service-specific educational materials to help commanders and service members select the optimum device.

“The HPD EPL is a tool that helps everyone select the right hearing protector for the noise environment both on and off the job,” said Schulz. “It’s for anyone responsible for providing, fitting, and using personal protective equipment. That includes military members and civilians, along with employers, commanders, supervisors, and leaders at all levels responsible for the safety and hearing health of their people.”

Col. (Dr.) LaKeisha Henry, the center’s division chief, is hopeful the EPL will lead to more widespread use and acceptance of hearing protection, which could have a positive impact on future hearing loss.

“Hearing loss can have severe consequences for our health and future well-being,” said Henry. “With improved hearing protection selection and continued hearing health education, our service members and DoD civilians will be more inclined to use HPDs, which will significantly help to reduce hearing injuries across all Services.”

For more about the hearing protection device evaluated products list, visit the Hearing Center of Excellence webpage.

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