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Hearing protection field attenuation estimation systems and associated training for reducing workers' exposure to noise.

BACKGROUND: Global Burden of Disease studies identify hearing loss as the third leading cause of years lived with a disability. Their estimates point to large societal and individual costs from unaddressed hearing difficulties. Workplace noise is an important modifiable risk factor; if addressed, it could significantly reduce the global burden of disease. In practice, providing hearing protection devices (HPDs) is the most common intervention to reduce noise exposure at work. However, lack of fit of HPDs, especially earplugs, can greatly limit their effectiveness. This may be the case for 40% of users. Testing the fit and providing instructions to improve noise attenuation might be effective. In the past two decades, hearing protection fit-test systems have been developed and evaluated in the field. They are called field attenuation estimation systems. They measure the noise attenuation obtained by individual workers using HPDs. If there is a lack of fit, instruction for better fit is provided, and may lead to better noise attenuation obtained by HPDs.

OBJECTIVES: To assess: (1) the effects of field attenuation estimation systems and associated training on the noise attenuation obtained by HPDs compared to no instruction or to less instruction in workers exposed to noise; and (2) whether these interventions promote adherence to HPD use.

SEARCH METHODS: We used CENTRAL, MEDLINE, five other databases, and two trial registers, together with reference checking, citation searching, and contact with study authors to identify studies. We imposed no language or date restrictions. The latest search date was February 2024.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs), cluster-RCTs, controlled before-after studies (CBAs), and interrupted time-series studies (ITSs) exploring HPD fit testing in workers exposed to noise levels of more than 80 A-weighted decibels (or dBA) who use hearing protection devices. The unit 'dBA' reports on the use of a frequency-weighting filter to adjust sound measurement results to better reflect how human ears process sound. The outcome noise attenuation had to be measured either as a personal attenuation rating (PAR), PAR pass rate, or both. PAR pass rate is the percentage of workers who passed a pre-established level of sufficient attenuation from their HPDs, identified on the basis of their individual noise exposure.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently assessed study eligibility, risk of bias, and extracted data. We categorised interventions as fit testing of HPDs with instructions at different levels (no instructions, simple instructions, and extensive instructions).

MAIN RESULTS: We included three RCTs (756 participants). We did not find any studies that examined whether fit testing and training contributed to hearing protector use, nor any studies that examined whether age, gender, or HPD experience influenced attenuation. We would have included any adverse effects if mentioned by the trial authors, but none reported them. None of the included studies blinded participants; two studies blinded those who delivered the intervention. Effects of fit testing of HPDs with instructions (simple or extensive) versus fit testing of HPDs without instructions Testing the fit of foam and premoulded earplugs accompanied by simple instructions probably does not improve their noise attenuation in the short term after the test (1-month follow-up: mean difference (MD) 1.62 decibels (dB), 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.93 to 4.17; 1 study, 209 participants; 4-month follow-up: MD 0.40 dB, 95% CI -2.28 to 3.08; 1 study, 197 participants; both moderate-certainty evidence). The intervention probably does not improve noise attenuation in the long term (MD 0.15 dB, 95% CI -3.44 to 3.74; 1 study, 103 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). Fit testing of premoulded earplugs with extensive instructions on the fit of the earplugs may improve their noise attenuation at the immediate retest when compared to fit testing without instructions (MD 8.34 dB, 95% CI 7.32 to 9.36; 1 study, 100 participants; low-certainty evidence). Effects of fit testing of HPDs with extensive instructions versus fit testing of HPDs with simple instructions Fit testing of foam earplugs with extensive instructions probably improves their attenuation (MD 8.62 dB, 95% CI 6.31 to 10.93; 1 study, 321 participants; moderate-certainty evidence) and also the pass rate of sufficient attenuation (risk ratio (RR) 1.75, 95% CI 1.44 to 2.11; 1 study, 321 participants; moderate-certainty evidence) when compared to fit testing with simple instructions immediately after the test. This is significant because every 3 dB decrease in noise exposure level halves the sound energy entering the ear. No RCTs reported on the long-term effectiveness of the HPD fit testing with extensive instructions.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: HPD fit testing accompanied by simple instructions probably does not improve noise attenuation from foam and premoulded earplugs. Testing the fit of foam and premoulded earplugs with extensive instructions probably improves attenuation and PAR pass rate immediately after the test. The effects of fit testing associated with training to improve attenuation may vary with types of HPDs and training methods. Better-designed trials with larger sample sizes are required to increase the certainty of the evidence.

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