Hearing loss and tinnitus are the top and third most common service-connected disabilities among veterans. According to a Veterans Benefits Administration report, as of fiscal year 2020, more than 1.3 million veterans were receiving disability compensation for hearing loss and more than 2.3 million for tinnitus. Not surprisingly, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the largest employer of audiologists and speech-language pathologists in the US.
On the bright side, military hearing losses are at stable levels—but “it’s not improving,” said US Army Lt Col Michael Murphy, chief of the studies and analysis section and Army audiology liaison at the Defense Health Agency Hearing Center of Excellence (HCE), in an interview for Department of Defense news.
Hearing protection is critical to reduce injury. Exposure to firearms, explosives, and other “continuous hazardous noise” puts service members and US Department of Defense (DoD) civilians at risk of permanent hearing loss, said Theresa Schulz, PhD, chief of the HCE prevention and surveillance section. “Good hearing is a key to mission success.”
Hearing protectors, which Shulz calls “the last line of defense from noise-induced hearing loss,” work best when they fit right: protecting against noise and, when necessary, not muffling voices, alarms, and other important sounds. That is why the DoD has updated its requirements for fit testing. All DoD personnel who are exposed to continuous and intermittent noise ≥ 85 decibels (in an 8-hour average) or impulse noise sound pressure ≥ 140 decibels (for ≥ 1 day per year) must be enrolled in a hearing conservation program. Additional criteria are expected for release by December 2023. According to HCE, each service may have more stringent requirements for hearing protector fit testing that better meets the needs of their hearing conservation program.
The question of proper fit was at the root of a recent lawsuit charging 3M with knowingly selling defective earplugs to the US military. The 3M dual-ended Combat Arms Earplug (CAEv2) was designed to eliminate the need for soldiers to carry 2 different sets of earplugs. Worn one way, it was intended to block sound like traditional earplugs; worn in reverse, it would block only certain types of loud battlefield noise while allowing the wearer to hear softer, closer sounds.
However, no 2 ears are the same—even on the same person. According to the HCE, during hearing protection testing, there is a < 2 mm difference in insertion depth between left and right ears for 85% of subjects. A 2016 whistleblower lawsuit accused 3M of not disclosing that the CAEv2 was too short for proper insertion into users’ ears and that it could loosen imperceptibly and fail to form the protective seal.
In 2018, 3M agreed to pay $9.1 million to the Department of Justice to resolve the allegations without admitting liability. That case led to the largest mass tort multidistrict litigation in US history. Last February, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) filed an amicus curiae brief to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in support of claimants seeking relief from 3M for defective ear protection. Approximately 240,000 veterans filed lawsuits against 3M. In September the parties reached a $6 billion settlement—nearly half of 3M’s worth. According to John Muckelbauer, a veteran and general counsel for the VFW in a military.com opinion piece , the settlement achieves balance: not pushing the already financially strapped 3M into bankruptcy, but sending “a strong signal that the safety of our service members can never be compromised.”