Can music headphones be used as hearing protection?

The issue of music headphones being used as hearing protection is one which comes up fairly regularly, and is one where the answer is not going to be a popular one, especially where jobs are boring and repetitive or where employees work in a position where they cannot talk to others.

The problem arises where a noise assessment has identified a need, post all the other noise reduction and noise-control gubbins, for hearing protection to be worn in the workplace. Some employees like to listen to music or the radio while they work so use either in-ear or noise-cancelling headphones and assume that as this blocks out external noise it is perfectly fine.

To be clear, I fully sympathise with them on this. I almost always work with music playing and to be stuck in a factory which is too loud to talk to anyone all day every day without some music would really make the day drag out.

The issues with music headphones as hearing protection

  1. Music headphones are not certified as hearing protection.
    Here is a simple test - for the headphones in question, find the SNR, HML or even APV performance data for the headphones they wish to wear. There are none as the headphones are NOT hearing protection, and this includes active noise-cancelling ones, passive noise cancelling (noise blocking) ones, and the bog-standard ones which came with the phone. An employer cannot permit any hearing protection to be used for which the performance data is completely unknown, whether they play music or not.

  2. The music volume itself is usually dangerous
    Music needs to be played at a volume which is quite a bit louder than the background noise in order for the wearer to hear it. I know this from my own experience - I ride a motorbike and the wind noise under the helmet at 70mph is rather impressive. If I wear headphones, I have to set them to full whack to stand a chance of hearing the music or SatNav instructions over the wind noise, and way into the danger zone for noise exposure levels. I am taking what is already a high noise and adding a lot more to it. This is exactly what a wearer of headphones in the workplace is doing.

  3. Music noise and work noise has the same impact on hearing
    Noise has the same impact on hearing whatever the source so if someone blasts music into their ears all day to drown out the background noise of their workplace, then it has exactly the same impact on their hearing as the workplace noise would. When their hearing starts to deteriorate in later life, guess which source they are going to blame and against which defending a claim would be very hard because the employer has not enforced the use of proper hearing protection?

  4. Music headphones cannot be worn underneath hearing protection
    There is no point in the muff taking say 25dB off the noise levels and then headphones underneath putting it back on again. As above, the music can have exactly the same impact on hearing as a punch press banging away.

  5. Drowns out other essential workplace sounds
    If they take the background noise of the workplace and then add even more noise to it with headphones, they are in greater danger of missing things like machinery alarms, fire alarms, passing forklift trucks etc. Again, this is also the case with noise-reducing headphones as it is with normal headphones.

  6. Allowing it puts the employer at risk legally
    If the employer has identified a residual risk to the hearing of employees after other reduction measures have been attempted, then they have no choice in both providing hearing protection and enforcing its use. If an employer allows music headphones to be used in place of hearing protection then they are in breach of this duty and open to both criminal prosecution and civil claims.

  7. People cannot opt-out of wearing PPE
    Employees cannot 'opt out' of wearing PPE, including hearing protection. That is a well established principle as the duty remains on employers to ensure employees are not injured by their work. If someone said they didn't like hearing protection and offered to sign a disclaimer that they accept the risk this is not allowed and cannot be done. That is no different to them wearing their own headphones for music.

Music player headphones cannot be used as hearing protection.

Possible solutions

This comes down to how accommodating the employers wants to be. It could be as simple as 'it is a high noise risk area and the company doesn't have a choice about permitting people to be there without hearing protection so they are banned, tough, and if you don't like it then there is the door and off you trot'.

There is the option of providing hearing protection with built-in radios, bluetooth or 3.5mm aux connections. These are designed as hearing protection and ensure that the wearer doesn't exceed any danger levels while allowing music to be heard. They can be expensive so an employer could consider making normal hearing protection available free of charge, and then approving styles which have the music playing facility and making a small contribution to them but employee pays for the rest. This way the employer is meeting their duty to provide hearing protection and it is the employee's choice to go for the fancier music-playing variety so them paying the extra seems fair enough.

General area radios are not a good solution. If the background noise is already so high that it has exceeded the average of 85dB(A) then adding a music system will just add even more noise to the site, and that goes back to the Noise Regs requiring employers to reduce noise levels where they can, which effectively bans PA music systems in high noise areas.

The short answer though is the one employees won't like - normal music headphones can't be used as hearing protection at work.