Ask the Audiologist: Researcher Jackie DiFrancesco on a Lifelong Love of Sound

Ask the Audiologist: Researcher Jackie DiFrancesco on a Lifelong Love of Sound

Jackie DiFrancesco is a musician turned audiologist, with a passion for hearing protection. Her appreciation of sound led her to work as a musician audio engineer for the film and television industry, and then as a research audiologist at the Honeywell Howard Leight Acoustical Testing Laboratory in San Diego.

We sat down with Jackie – or, rather, we heard from her, on her role as hearing protection researcher, how she helps workers preserve their hearing, and the latest trends in hearing protection.

Hi, Jackie, could you tell us a little bit about your position with Honeywell?

My Honeywell title has the word engineer in it, but I'm really not an engineer, I'm an audiologist - more specifically a research audiologist. A typical audiologist works in a clinical setting. They perform hearing tests and provide aural rehabilitation for those who need it, which includes fitting hearing aids. I am trained in that regard, but I'm here with Honeywell doing primarily research and testing with hearing protectors. I do quality testing, R&D, and anything else that comes up related to hearing. I also support marketing and provide education both internally and externally on hearing conservation.

How long have you been doing the work that you're doing now?

I've been with Honeywell for a little over two years. Before that I was in graduate school, working towards my Doctor of Audiology degree. As part of my training, I had extensive work experience, including a VA hospital, a mobile industrial audiology unit, and a facility that manufactures submarines for the US Navy.

What attracted you to this field of work, which is quite specific?

Before I started my education in audiology, I was a musician and I worked in audio for film and television. So, in that sense, I really think about the value of hearing, and feel like people who go to work should come home with their hearing intact, whether they are construction workers, musicians, or anyone else exposed to occupational noise. I’m excited to work in a field that helps to make that happen.

If we're talking about making music and listening to live music, the general opinion is that hearing loss is caused by loud noises. Does your research support this general opinion? Or is there more to it?

There is a lot of research that tells us that any type of loud noise, whether it's in a factory or at a concert, can be damaging to hearing and it does accumulate over time. The more you do it, the worse it's going to get.

Would you say there is greater awareness of hearing loss?

I would like to say there is, but I don't go to concerts as much as I did when I was younger. But the last time I went out to one, it was very, very loud. I wasn't even sure if I was going to be able to stay in the room, and I was wearing earplugs.

And, I was one of the few. But the people I was with, both came with hearing protection, one of them had custom hearing protection that they had ordered. So that was hopeful that there are people out there who are aware and being proactive about it, but I don’t know if the general population has caught on. Unfortunately, many people wait until some damage has already been done before they take action.  Noise-induced hearing loss tends to progress slowly over time, so people don’t notice it until there has been a significant change. At that point, the damage is permanent, but you can always protect what’s left!

Why is it important to protect your hearing?

Because natural hearing is always going to be superior to an amplified signal. Once you lose hearing, the only way you're going to get anything back is with an amplification device, like a hearing aid. It's called a hearing “aid” because it's aiding what you have left. It's not restoring anything, you can never get back that natural hearing you once had. It's never going to sound the same, it's never going to sound as clear and crisp as it once did.

If you can maintain any natural function that's always going to help. We want to protect what's left and prevent further hearing loss.

What do you typically do on a regular day, is this something that has regularity or there are new things coming up every day?

Most days I'm in the lab testing products, either for research or for quality assurance. I start by collecting data. I test the products on our acoustical test fixture, which is an electro-acoustical device that looks like a human head and can measure sound in a way that mimics human hearing. It even heats up to body temperature so we know that the foam products are behaving as they will in the real world. Before COVID, we could also see human subjects. We would have people from the community come in and perform different types of tests. After testing, I analyze the data using various statistical methods and then write up reports on the findings. The majority of what I do is that type of thing.

Is this type of research for product teams and marketing teams? Are they the ones requesting this type of testing?

Typically, it is usually coming from production, quality assurance, or engineering.

And when it comes to inviting people, how do you make the selection? Are they random or a specific set of subjects who fit specific requirements?

Our tests are all based on specific standards, usually ANSI standards in the United States. Those standards specify what you're looking for in a test subject, which is usually an adult who has what we call normal hearing. We test the softest sound the person can hear at various frequencies, and those thresholds need to be in a certain range in order to qualify. We also do otoscopy. We look inside the ears and make sure there's nothing obstructing the ear canal, like wax.

How many people do you invite to these tests?

It's usually either 10 or 20, depending on the tests.

When creating a new product for hearing protection, where does the initiative come from?

Commonly, from marketing or engineering. When it comes from marketing, it's really coming from the customer. We're always looking to what our customers are asking for, what the customer needs. It's usually the sales and marketing teams who are out there, talking to customers. They get that information. And then they can bring it to the engineering team and say: This is what we want, can you make this happen?

And how do you start?

We start by identifying the needs of the customer and translating those needs into design concepts.  The engineering team will then create a model that incorporates those concepts. My role is to verify that the product will do what is intended to do. I need to really think about how the product is going to interface with the user. So that might be based on anatomy or hearing status. Ears are like snowflakes, no two are alike! And we know that not everyone has normal hearing, so we have to take everyone into account. Then we need to know, does it meet the standards? Does it meet regulations? And I can test and determine whether or not we're meeting those other qualifications.

How do you create products destined for people who wear a hearing aid?

The most common solution for that is when someone is in a noisy environment, they'll take their hearing aid out, and they'll put their hearing protection on. The challenge there is they may have even more trouble hearing things that they need to hear, like someone talking to them or a warning alarm.

For those cases, we do have electronic hearing protectors which incorporate amplification, and will let in some sound up to a certain level. That can be helpful for someone with hearing loss. We also have what we call a flat attenuation earplug that still offers protection, but it allows a little more sound to come in, specifically the sound that's in the range of speech. Someone with hearing loss might be able to understand speech a little bit better than when they're wearing a traditional earplug.

Another option would be to keep the hearing aids in and put earmuffs right over them. Some preliminary research has shown this to be both safe and effective. They're protected, but they're also getting the amplification that they need.

Is Honeywell looking at specific associations, organizations and what they are seeing in terms of what's the future of hearing protection?

We do attend the conferences of various organizations. The National Safety Council is one. And the National Hearing Conservation Association just had its meeting in February. I regularly attend that to connect with the hearing conservation community - this includes audiologists, engineers, PPE manufacturers, safety professionals, researchers, etc. It's a really good place to get everyone together and see what’s new in hearing conservation.

Have you noticed any trends in hearing protection, like sustainable products, for example?

We are seeing an increasing interest in sustainability and more environmentally friendly products. This can include different aspects of the product, from reducing energy consumption during manufacturing to using recycled packaging or biodegradable materials. One way to improve sustainability in a hearing conservation program is to incorporate reusable products.  These include hearing protection devices that can be cleaned between uses and will maintain their protective characteristics. We offer several products like that, both earplugs and earmuffs.

Another trend is usability. People want hearing protection that is easy to use, and easy to consistently get a good fit.  Our newest earplug, the TrustFit Pod, is a push-in foam that does not need to be rolled down like traditional foam earplugs.  It has a stem that can be used to insert and remove the earplug. This saves some time and makes fitting and refitting easier.

Also, although the pandemic has slowed things down for many industries, I think it's putting more of an emphasis on safety in general. People are looking at various aspects of their safety programs, which include hearing. There is a greater interest in sanitation, such as proper cleaning of reusable products and Honeywell has a variety of earplugs that are easy to clean. We are always thinking about new ways to improve the health and safety of our customers.

Interested in finding out more? Jackie is hosting a webinar on hearing protection, learn more on how to register for the event.

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