Choose The Hearing Protection That’s Right For You
Expandable foam plugs
These plugs are made of a formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each person’s ear canal. Roll the expandable plugs into a thin, crease-free cylinder. Whether you roll plugs with thumb and fingers or across your palm doesn’t matter. What’s critical is the final result—a smooth tube thin enough so that about half the length will fit easily into your ear canal. Some individuals, especially women with small ear canals, have difficulty rolling typical plugs small enough to make them fit. A few manufacturers now offer a small size expandable plug.
Pre-molded, reusable plugs
Pre-molded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are manufactured as either “one-size-fits-most” or are available in several sizes. Many pre-molded plugs are available in sizes for small, medium or large ear canals.
A critical tip about pre-molded plugs is that a person may need a different size plug for each ear. The plugs should seal the ear canal without being uncomfortable. This takes trial and error of the various sizes. Directions for fitting each model of pre-molded plug may differ slightly depending on how many flanges they have and how the tip is shaped. Insert this type of plug by reaching over your head with one hand to pull up on your ear. Then use your other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion until you have sealed the ear canal.
Advantages of pre-molded plugs are that they are relatively inexpensive, reusable, washable, convenient to carry, and come in a variety of sizes. Nearly everyone can find a plug that will be comfortable and effective. In dirty or dusty environments, you don’t need to handle or roll the tips.
Canal caps often resemble earplugs on a flexible plastic or metal band. The earplug tips of a canal cap may be a formable or pre-molded material. Some have headbands that can be worn over the head, behind the neck or under the chin. Newer models have jointed bands increasing the ability to properly seal the earplug.
The main advantage canal caps offer is convenience. When it’s quiet, employees can leave the band hanging around their necks. They can quickly insert the plug tips when hazardous noise starts again. Some people find the pressure from the bands uncomfortable. Not all canal caps have tips that adequately block all types of noise. Generally, the canal caps tips that resemble stand-alone earplugs seem to block the most noise.
Earmuffs come in many models designed to fit most people. They work to block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Muffs can be “low profile” with small ear cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme noise. Some muffs also include electronic components to help users communicate or to block impulsive noises.
Workers who have heavy beards or sideburns or who wear glasses may find it difficult to get good protection from earmuffs. The hair and the temples of the glasses break the seal that the earmuff cushions make around the ear. For these workers, earplugs are best. Other potential drawbacks of earmuffs are that some people feel they can be hot and heavy in some environments.
Manufacturers are receptive to comments from hearing protection users. This has led to the development of new devices that are hybrids of the traditional types of hearing protectors. (Visit NIOSH searchable compendium of hearing protectors) Because many people like the comfort of foam plugs, but don’t want to roll them in dirty environments, a plug is now available that is essentially a foam tip on a stem. You insert this plug much like a pre-molded plug without rolling the foam.
Scientists are developing earmuffs using high-tech materials to reduce weight and bulk, but still effectively block noise. On the horizon may be earplugs with built in two-way communication capability.
Still, the best hearing protector is the one that is comfortable and convenient and that you will wear every time you are in an environment with hazardous noise.
1) Know How Much Noise Reduction You Need
Obviously, the first consideration in choosing a hearing protector is whether it will block enough noise to reduce your exposure to a safe level. The good news is that most industrial noise exposures are less than 95 dBA, which means most workers require no more than about 10 dB of noise reduction to meet the NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit of 85 dBA. Almost any hearing protector, when fit correctly, can provide 10 dB of sound reduction. If you do not know the noise levels at your worksite, you can measure them with an app such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter.
Louder environments demand higher levels of noise reduction, but beware of reducing sound too much. Just as too little light can make it just as difficult to see as too much light, too little sound can make you feel isolated and less aware of their surroundings. Overprotection can be counterproductive, as you may feel the need to remove your hearing protector to hear someone speak or listen to your equipment. Aim for just enough noise reduction to bring your exposure down to 75-85 dBA.
The Noise Reduction Rating on hearing protector packaging represents the amount of noise the hearing protector blocked when tested in a laboratory, but workers usually get much less noise reduction on the job. The best way to know how much noise reduction you are getting from a hearing protector is by fit-testing. If fit-testing is not available at your workplace, you can check earplug fit by counting out loud while slowly cupping and uncupping your hands over your ears; if you have a good fit, your voice should sound about the same as you cup and uncup your ears. NIOSH QuickFitWeb can also be used to check if you are getting more or less than 15 dB of sound reduction.
If you are exposed to noise levels 100 dBA or greater (such as chainsaws or jackhammers) or if you are exposed to impulsive sounds (such as nail gun or weapons noise), you should wear double hearing protection (earmuffs over earplugs).
2) Think About Your Worksite and Job Tasks
Workplace characteristics beyond noise levels also need to be considered in choosing the right hearing protector. For example, do you have to wear other head-level personal protective equipment (PPE), such as eye protection, a hard hat, or a respirator? Eye protection (and even some eyeglasses) can interfere with the seal of an earmuff around the ear, allowing sound to leak into the ear. Earmuffs can interfere with the fit of hardhats or helmets; some muffs have a “low-profile” headband or are designed to be mounted directly onto a hardhat or helmet, eliminating this problem. Make sure that your hearing protection is compatible with other safety equipment you use at work.
Consider also whether the noise at your job is continuous or if it stops and starts at various times during the day. Do you stay in the same place for most of the workday, or move from one area to another? Earmuffs are easier to remove and replace than earplugs, so they may be better for intermittent noise exposures. If earmuffs are not an option due to other issues (e.g., compatibility with other PPE), pre-formed earplugs may be easier to remove and replace than foam plugs. Level-dependent or sound restoration hearing protectors can also be useful for intermittent exposures; these types of hearing protection allow sound to pass through when the background noise levels are low and become protective when noise levels increase.
Do your hands frequently get dirty at work? If so, avoid using foam earplugs which must be rolled down with your fingers before insertion, unless hand-washing facilities are readily available and you have time to wash up each time you need to insert the earplugs. Do you work in a tight space? Earmuffs may not be compatible when working in a confined area. Is it very hot or very cold where you work? Earmuffs can be uncomfortable in hot environments; earmuff cushions can become ineffective in very cold environments.
Finally, think about how frequently you need to hear speech while wearing hearing protection. If spoken communication is common, or if high fidelity sound is important for other reasons (e.g., musicians), flat attenuation hearing protectors may be helpful. Special communication headsets can also improve speech communication in very loud environments.
3) Decide What is Most Comfortable and Convenient
Once you have narrowed your selection down to hearing protectors that are appropriate for your noise exposure and compatible with your worksite and job tasks, the choice is completely up to you! However, hearing protection only works if you wear it consistently and correctly every time you are exposed to hazardous noise, so choose a protector that is comfortable and convenient.
Many people find earplugs more comfortable than earmuffs, especially when worn for long periods of time or in in hot environments. Earplugs are lightweight, easy to store, and convenient to keep on hand for unexpected exposures. However, earplugs may be harder to learn to fit properly. Some earplugs come in different sizes, so you may need help determining which size is correct for you. If your ear canals are very narrow or very curvy, it may be difficult to find an earplug that will fit. Earplugs are usually inexpensive, but they need to be replaced frequently; some earplugs are designed to be used once only and then discarded.
Earmuffs, on the other hand, are generally one-size devices. Many people find them easier to fit properly and consistently. Earmuffs are easier to remove and replace quickly, so they can be preferable for intermittent use. They are bulkier than earplugs and may be uncomfortable in warm places or tight spaces. They are more expensive, but more durable and last longer than earplugs.
Hearing health relies on knowing how to protect your hearing and how to select the right form of hearing protection. This National Protect Your Hearing Month, take a few minutes to make sure you are using the best hearing protection for your work tasks. Then, wear it every time you are exposed to noise levels above 85 dBA. Your ears will thank you!