What is the Effect of Hearing-Protection Devices on Auditory Situational Awareness & Listening Effort?

Research Paper Title

The Effect of Hearing-Protection Devices on Auditory Situational Awareness and Listening Effort.

Background

Hearing-protection devices (HPDs) are made available, and often are required, for industrial use as well as military training exercises and operational duties. However, these devices often are disliked, and consequently not worn, in part because they compromise situational awareness through reduced sound detection and localisation performance as well as degraded speech intelligibility.

In this study, the researchers carried out a series of tests, involving normal-hearing subjects and multiple background-noise conditions, designed to evaluate the performance of four HPDs in terms of their modifications of auditory-detection thresholds, sound-localisation accuracy, and speech intelligibility.

In addition, the researchers assessed their impact on listening effort to understand how the additional effort required to perceive and process auditory signals while wearing an HPD reduces available cognitive resources for other tasks.

Methods

Thirteen normal-hearing subjects participated in a protocol, which included auditory tasks designed to measure detection and localisation performance, speech intelligibility, and cognitive load.

Each participant repeated the battery of tests with unoccluded ears and four hearing protectors, two active (electronic) and two passive.

The tasks were performed both in quiet and in background noise.

Results

The findings indicate that, in variable degrees, all of the tested HPDs induce performance degradation on most of the conducted tasks as compared to the open ear.

Of particular note in this study is the finding of increased cognitive load or listening effort, as measured by visual reaction time, for some hearing protectors during a dual-task, which added working-memory demands to the speech-intelligibility task.

Conclusions

These results indicate that situational awareness can vary greatly across the spectrum of HPDs, and that listening effort is another aspect of performance that should be considered in future studies. The increased listening effort induced by hearing protectors may lead to earlier cognitive fatigue in noisy environments.

Further study is required to characterise how auditory performance is limited by the combination of hearing impairment and the use of HPDs, and how the effects of such limitations can be linked to safe and effective use of hearing protection to maximise job performance.

Reference

Smalt, C.J., Calamia, P.T., Dumas, A.P., Perricone, J.P., Patel, T., Bobrow, J., Collins, P.P., Markey, M.L. & Quatieri, T.F. (2019) The Effect of Hearing-Protection Devices on Auditory Situational Awareness and Listening Effort. Ear and Hearing. doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000733. [Epub ahead of print].

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