The effects of hearing protection on speech discrimination in differing noise spectra

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Virginia Tech


This research project was aimed at investigation of speech communication issues in industrial noise environments where workers utilize hearing protection devices (HPDs).

A controlled empirical study was conducted to determine the effects of several independent variables on speech reception and discrimination including: l). subject's hearing configuration (unoccluded or earplug, earcap, earmuff-occluded), 2). ambient noise intensity level (60, 83 dBA), 3). ambient noise spectral type (low, white approximation, high frequency), 4). speaker's voice level (63 or 65 dBA in 60 dBA noise, 82 or 88 dBA in 83 dBA noise), and 5). subject's hearing level (normal hearing, slight loss, or moderate loss) used as a blocking variable. Isophonemic word discrimination, with male-voiced word lists presented through loudspeakers in an anechoic field, served as the experimental task. Twenty-three males and twenty-two females participated in the experiment and a mixed-factors, partial hierarchical design was used for data collection. Analysis of variance and Newman-Keuls multiple-range tests were applied to the data.

All main effects, with the exception of hearing level blocks, were significant, in addition to several interactions. These are discussed in detail and depicted graphically. One fundamental finding was that none of the hearing protection devices degraded speech discrimination (in comparison to an unoccluded condition) in the 83 dBA ambient noise level. In fact, the most protective HPD significantly enhanced speech discrimination in the high noise level. In the low ambient noise level, there was some reduction in discrimination due to the wearing of an HPD, but this effect is not of concern because HPDs are not needed at low ambient levels for protection purposes. From the results, it appears that properly selected HPDs can be expected to at least maintain speech discrimination levels (equivalent to unoccluded levels) in moderately-high intensity industrial noises of varied spectral characteristics.