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Thousands of American armed forces members are suffering from hearing loss and tinnitus because of defective earplugs supplied to US Military by 3M Company. For over a decade 3M successfully bid to be the United States Military’s exclusive provider of earplugs, even though it appears that the company may have been aware of a crucial design flaw in its Combat Arms earplugs. 3M is one of the largest companies in the country, enjoying a dominant market share in almost every safety product market, including hearing protectors.

The design flaw was present no matter how the earplugs were used. The plugs were designed to block all noise if inserted one way, or to block explosive sounds but allow softer sounds in if inserted the other way. However, when inserted either way, the plugs were too short to fit properly, and would loosen just slightly so that damaging sounds could enter around the plugs. The defect was so subtle that it could not be detected by the wearer, or even by a trained audiologist.

3M was aware of the defect, and therefore ‘tested’ the product in a company-owned lab, on 10 subjects, some of whom were 3M employees. When results were unfavorable, testing was halted. Wearing the earplugs so that soft sounds could be heard actually showed that earplugs acted as a hearing aid and would amplify the sounds. 3M used this hazard as a marketing point, highlighting that the soldiers would be able to hear approaching enemies and friendly soldiers. 3M did not advertise that this ability came at the cost of an effect sound-blocker. To be effective, the users would have had to fold the ear plugs in a certain way to elongate the plugs, yet 3M did not provide instructions that would have allowed the users to receive the protection expected from the ear plugs. Instead 3M used the suspect test results to market the product, and in doing so put the soldiers who depended on the earplugs at risk.

The designers knew of the defects as far back as 2000, yet they continued to bid on military contracts, affirming with each bid that the earplugs complied to the necessary standards despite the known defect rendering the plugs noncompliant. In continuing to bid and act as the military’s sole supplier, 3M exposed thousands of soldiers serving from 2003-2015 to hearing damage. Treating these veterans is currently the most expensive medical costs to the military, and the payment of those costs is a burden ultimately passed along to the taxpayers.

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