Chainsaw operator ruptures ear drum while wearing foam ear plug

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What happened?

An employee of a silviculture firm was clearing vegetation with a chainsaw. He was wearing all the appropriate personal protective equipment, including reusable foam ear plugs. As he operated the chainsaw, he felt pressure build up within his right ear. This was followed by a popping sensation in his ear. Shortly afterward he noticed blood around his ear plug. He was taken to the nearest hospital, where a medical examination found that he had a ruptured ear drum.

Why did it happen?

The doctor who examined the worker noted that it’s possible for foam earplugs to cause damage to the ear drum if they are inserted too forcibly into the ear. If they are forced into the ear canal, the foam plugs can build pressure in the canal which is further aggravated by external noise, causing the ear drum to rupture.

The injured worker reported that a childhood illness had resulted in a 60 per cent hearing loss in his right ear and a weakened ear drum. It’s possible that years of prolonged exposure to loud noise, coupled with damage as a result of his childhood ailment, contributed to the rupture of his ear drum.

How can it be prevented?

After investigating the incident, the company’s joint health and safety committee recommended to management that both ear plugs and muffs be available for employees so that they can decide which form of hearing protection best suits them in terms of their ear structure and personal preference. Each of the two types of hearing protection has pros and cons, but it’s important to note that ear muffs provide more reliable and consistent protection from excessive noise. Ear plugs are small, easily carried and more comfortable for long-term wear in hot and humid work areas, but they require more time to fit and are more difficult to insert and remove.

Because of the noise produced by professional-grade chainsaws, operators have no choice but to wear hearing protection. If ear plugs are deemed to provide adequate protection, it’s important to remember that good hygiene practices are required to ensure that wearing the plugs doesn’t cause ear irritation or injury. Whether the ear plugs are disposable foam plugs or re-usable pre-moulded plugs, they should be inserted carefully and gently into the ear.

Foam plugs should be rolled by hand into a thin, smooth cylinder (not a cone or a ball) and inserted into the ear by pulling the edge of the ear upward and outward with the opposite hand. The worker’s hands should be clean when rolling and inserting the plugs. Smaller foam plugs are available for persons with small ear canals. Pre-moulded ear plugs come in various sizes to fit all types of ear canals.