Hearing loss, tinnitus and loss of balance are symptomatic in those who have worked in areas where they are exposed to extremely loud sounds. Hearing loss is a serious matter, it impacts relationships, can create tension, and can result in feelings of inadequacy. Many people, including musicians, factory workers, and those in the military depend on earplugs to protect their hearing. When those earplugs are defective, the end result is as devastating as the result for someone who has failed to protect themselves from hearing loss.
History of Issues with Combat Earplugs
Originally, 3M Combat Earplugs were designed by Aearo Technologies, Inc. After 3M acquired the company is 2008, many of the Aearo employees were hired to complete the development and testing of the earplugs. However, they are not the only ones who were working on these products, there were also several 3M employees responsible for this phase of the rollout of this product.
3M promoted the Combat Arms earplugs as a solution for military members who were exposed to extreme sounds including gunfire and explosions. The premise of these earplugs was simple: Allow a user to protect themselves from extreme noise while still allowing them to hear commands they were being issued and clearly hear their brothers-in-arms who were serving alongside them.
3M Wins Contract with Military
Beginning in 2006, 3M entered into a contract with the U.S. Government to supply earplugs for active duty personnel. This contract guaranteed 3M $9 million in sales on an annual basis. In return, 3M agreed to supply around 750,000 pairs of earplugs annually. The package size was 50 pairs per package, and a total of approximately 15,000 packages were purchased by the military per year. These sales continued until 2015 when 3M discontinued the product.
The challenge with this is that while 3M had discontinued the item, there were no steps taken to recall the supply which remained in the field after the last shipment. This means there were earplugs which likely remained in use, despite having identified a problem with the product.
Design Flaws Identified
As previously indicated 3M withdrew the earplugs because they identified a design flaw. The structure of the earplugs meant that too often, the earplugs were coming loose in the ear, often resulting in them being expelled from the ear without the user being aware of the problem. The result is what you would expect, veterans were complaining of issues ranging from tinnitus to hearing loss, in spite of the fact they were using the equipment as intended.
False Claims Act Lawsuit
As more members of the military started filing disability claims or were forced to resign their military work because of tinnitus and hearing loss, a whistle blower came forward stating the design flaw was a known problem. In fact, a whistleblower claimed the design flaw was known as far back as 2000 meaning that the entire time 3M was selling these earplugs to the military, they were aware they may not work as claimed.
According to an article published by CBS news, the government, and the manufacturer of the earplugs “alleged 3M was aware prior to selling the earplugs to the military that testing procedures and fitting instructions were unlawfully manipulated. It also claimed they sold the plugs from 2003 to 2015 “without disclosing the design defect.” The lawsuit was settled for $9.1 million dollars, without 3M having to take any responsibility for the design defect or having admitted any wrongdoing.
However, this may not be the end of the legal problems 3M will face over the Combat Earplug. Several law firms have filed class action suits, and individual suits on behalf of veterans suffering from various degrees of hearing loss. While researching the problem with these earplugs, these law firms have uncovered disturbing facts indicating nearly one million veterans may have been discharged from active service because of hearing loss and more than one million others may be suffering from tinnitus. With all the safety concerns which face active members of the armed forces, most people are shocked to learn the most common service-connected disability is in fact hearing loss. 3M may be partially to blame for this condition.