(Last Updated On: July 13, 2020)

Noise-induced hearing loss can easily be prevented by the proper selection of a hearing protection device that is well suited for the job.

In this post, you’ll be learning how to properly pick the right hearing protection that fits your needs.

It will also include information on:

  • When you should get hearing protection
  • The different exposure durations with their corresponding noise levels
  • Pros and cons of ear plugs and ear muffs
  • Different factors for you to consider
  • How overall comfort plays a vital role in your choice
  • And more!

So if you find the right hearing protection for you, then you should keep reading on.

Let’s get started.

When Do You Need Hearing Protection?

A guy wearing earmuffs while working (From: ishn.com)
A guy wearing earmuffs while working (From: ishn.com)

As defined by Wikipedia, noise is any unwanted sound that is judged to be unpleasant, loud or disruptive to hearing. It is measured in decibels (dB) which is a logarithmic scale* for sound intensity.

An example of this is that the incremental loudness between 50dB to 60dB and 60dB to 70dB isn’t the same despite each being 10dB apart. A 50dB refrigerator will only be half as loud as a 60dB air conditioner, while a 70dB dishwasher will be about four times louder than the 50dB refrigerator.

Noise can be found everywhere we go and it is a part of our everyday lives – from the moment we wake up to our alarm clock, to the bustling sounds of honks and horns of cars stuck in traffic. We are all constantly exposed to noise, and if we’re not careful, run the risk of having permanent damage to our hearing.

General discomfort, irritation and in severe cases, noise-induced hearing loss can often occur when you are exposed to excessive or high levels of noise. That is why it’s important to wear hearing protection devices (HPDs) when needed, especially if your job or hobby takes place in a noisy environment such as a construction site or shooting range.

But when exactly do you need to wear an HPD?

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers are legally required to use hearing protection when their 8-hr time-weighted average exposure reaches or exceeds 85 dB, A-weighted.

Table of noise exposure level and corresponding durations

Below is a summarized table of some of the possible noise exposure levels with their corresponding durations as provided by NIOSH.

Combinations of noise exposure levels and durations that no worker exposure shall equal or exceed
 Exposure Level
(dBA)
Duration
HoursMinutesSeconds
802524-
831242-
858--
8752-
89310-
912--
941--
98-2349
101-1154
105-443
If you’re interested in seeing the full table containing all the possible exposure levels and time duration combinations, then you can refer to page 2 of NIOSH’s Occupational Noise Exposure Criteria.

Common Types of Hearing Protection Devices

The most common types of hearing protection devices are:

  1. Ear Plugs
  2. Ear Muffs

Each has its own unique physical characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages. They are both great to add to your hearing protection arsenal as they offer you unique benefits, but take note that you should still consider their respective features.

Ear Plugs

Man putting on some earplugs (From: starkey.com)
Man putting on some earplugs (From: starkey.com)

Ear plugs are small, tubular HPDs that can either be manufactured to specifically fit your ear while making it reusable for continued use, or mass-produced in order to be more disposable.

Disposable ear plugs are usually made from foam and are only meant to be used once before discarding them due to hygienic reasons. Because they’re made from memory foam, they start to expand and take more space after being compressed inside the ear canal.

Reusable ear plugs on the other hand, are usually made of silicone and rubber, meaning you can wash them when needed. The tip of this type of ear plug looks like a ball that is to be inserted inside the ear canal, while the other end is meant to protrude to make it easier to put on and remove.

This HPD is generally simple to use and costs less than ear muffs while also providing you with more comfort when working in hot environments.

However, the small size of this HPD makes it so that you might easily misplace them or improperly insert them in your ear. In addition, you should also practice good hygiene as it is required that you have clean hands when putting on ear plugs in order to prevent dirt or debris from entering your ear.

Ear Muffs

Man putting on some ear muffs (From: helpingmehear.com)
Man putting on some ear muffs (From: helpingmehear.com)

On the other hand, ear muffs are a lot more durable than ear plugs and are easier to put on and remove. Ear muffs are basically two ear cups attached to a headband that uses adequate clamping force to make a seal around your ears that reduces incoming noise.

The headband part is usually made out of thermoplastic or metal, while the ear cups are cushioned to provide a comfortable fit around the external ears. It should have an adjustable headband to fit heads of different sizes.

Avoid ear muffs with no adjustable headband.

Their size and heavier weight allow them to be easily monitored meaning that you can’t easily lose or misplace them. In addition, ear muffs are often a one-size-fits-all HPD since they’re meant to be worn outside the ear canal.

However, ear muffs are more expensive than ear plugs and tend to be uncomfortable to use when working in hot areas or humid environments. Also, there is also a risk that ear muffs may interfere with any other personal protective equipment (PPE) you are wearing such as helmets, goggles, glasses and more.

How to Pick the Correct Hearing Protection

In actuality, there is no universal HPD that works for everyone. We all have our own needs and specific requirements when it comes to hearing protection and it all depends on a number of factors. These factors are:

  1. How much noise to reduce
  2. Work Environment
  3. Comfort level
  4. Ease of Fit
  5. Compatibility with other Personal Protective Equipment

The “perfect” HPD that suits everyone doesn’t exist. Each person has different needs.

1. How much noise to reduce

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 22 million workers in the United States are exposed to hazardous levels of noise at their workplace each year. That is why finding a device that can adequately provide you with the proper amount of noise reduction is probably the most important factor to consider when picking the best hearing protection for you.

In order to know the acceptable amount of noise you can be exposed to, you can always refer to NIOSH’s table of adequate noise levels and their corresponding exposure durations as seen above. It’s also essential that you understand the different labels found on the packaging of most HPDs so that you can properly reduce noise exposure to acceptable levels while avoiding overprotection or underprotection.

One such label is the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). NRR is basically a rating provided by the manufacturer of an HPD that gives you a rough estimation on the amount of noise protection the device will give you in decibels. An example of this is an HPD with an NRR rating of 22, that means the device will reduce noise levels by 22 dB.

It’s important to note that NRR ratings do not reflect real-world application since they are the result of highly-controlled testing by the HPD manufacturers. That’s why derating, a process that calculates more realistic values for NRR ratings, should be done first.

For more information on this, you can refer to our article that explains everything you need to know about the noise reduction rating.

2. Work Environment

The kind of work environment you have can drastically affect the type of HPD that is most appropriate for you. If you’re struggling to determine how your environment can dictate the type of HPD you’ll use, just ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is communication vital? If the answer to this question is yes, then you may need to find flat attenuation HPDs as these help you use spoken communication throughout your job while also maintaining the proper level of noise reduction.
  • Do my hands get dirty during work? The reason why this is important is because if your hands tend to get dirty during work, then you should wear ear muffs rather than ear plugs. Ear plugs require your fingers to dig around your ear canal when putting it on or off, and if your fingers are dirty, it can introduce unwanted dirt in your ear causing an infection.
  • What are the types of noises at my workplace? If you find that the noises at your workplace are continuous*, then disposable ear plugs are a great choice since you’ll rarely have to remove them anyways. However, if noises are intermittent, meaning it starts and stops at different points within the day, then ear muffs or pre-formed ear plugs would do well here since they’re both relatively easier to fit without wasting a lot of time.
*Continuous noises are basically noises that are produced continuously and neither pause nor stop. Examples of continuous noises are the humming sounds of your air conditioning unit and the droning sound of an idle car engine.

3. Comfort level

How comfortable an HPD is to you is very important because you’ll be wearing the HPD for several hours on end, if not the whole day. You wouldn’t want to wear ear muffs when you work in hot environments or confined spaces as this can lead to an uncomfortable experience that interferes with your ability to do your job.

In addition, if you find the device to be uncomfortable, you might tend to remove it at inappropriate times which means you’ll be taking more breaks, wasting more time, being less productive, and more importantly, exposing yourself to excessive noise levels.

Comfortable ear plugs are ones that fit just right on the inside of your ear canal without feeling awkward or intrusive. You shouldn’t feel like the ear plugs are too loose or are the wrong size for your ear.

As for comfortable ear muffs, these should snugly fit around your ear and provide you with adequate hearing protection while allowing your skin to breath as needed. It also shouldn’t feel awkward to remove from your head and put it on back again.

Take note of the clamping force of the ear muffs too. Some of the ear muffs have a really strong clamping force. Even though they are great for sealing external noise, it can be so uncomfortable to wear for more than 15 minutes. Look at this table and understand how long you need the HPD for.

4. Ease of Fit

It’s important that your HPD properly fits on or in your ear as this is used to maximize the total noise attenuation you get from the device. Improperly worn HPDs or ones that just don’t fit you cannot provide you with the appropriate amount of hearing protection that you need.

You can get a good fit with ear muffs if the headband has the appropriate amount of clamping strength while the earcups encompass the entirety of your ear without having to expose any part of it on the outside. It should have a decent seal around your ear in order to prevent noise from leaking in.

Diagram of the Roll-Pull-Hold technique (From: 3m.com)
Diagram of the Roll-Pull-Hold technique (From: 3m.com)

As for getting a good fit with ear plugs, you can use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Roll-Pull-Hold ear plug wearing technique.

All you do is roll the ear plug into a small and thin tube or “snake” with your fingers. After that, you pull the top of your ear up and back with your opposite hand so you can slide in the ear plug. Lastly, hold the ear plug in with your finger in order to get a snug fit.

5. Compatibility with other Personal Protective Equipment

Wearing your HPD correctly is important in providing you with the hearing protection you need.

This is why it is so important to consider the compatibility of your HPD with any other PPE you might be using alongside in your workplace as these may interfere with the effectiveness of your HPD. Examples of different PPEs are hardhats, helmets, goggles, eye protectors and more.

A scenario where these PPE can interfere with your HPDs is when the PPE, such as goggles or a helmet, breaks the seal of your ear muffs which then exposes you to unwanted noise. If you want to stay on the safe side, more often than not, a good pair of ear plugs is ideal since they’re the least likely to interfere with any other PPE you may be wearing.

However, there are times when it is possible to wear ear muffs together with other PPEs, but these are just case-to-case basis. The general rule of thumb when putting on ear muffs together with other PPEs such as helmets or goggles is to make sure that the cushioned seal around the ear is not broken or interfered with.

If you realize that issues arise due to your ear muffs being incompatible with the other PPEs you’re wearing, then pre-formed or foam ear plugs are a viable choice.

Conclusion

We’ve discussed everything you need to know when selecting the appropriate HPD for your needs.

Picking the correct hearing protection device for you that fits all of your needs while reducing the right amount of noise can definitely help reduce the risk of hearing loss. It’s also important that it adheres to your work environment standard while being comfortable enough for you to wear for hours on end.

Lastly, making sure that your HPD is compatible with the other PPE you’re wearing is also vital in order for you to have the maximum amount of protection in all the necessary areas.

Once you buy the right HPD you’ll be able to enjoy your work or hobby without fear of pain or unnecessary hearing damage.

If you have any questions about hearing protection devices or about noise in general, please feel free to ask us in the comments. Perhaps you have a suggestion for us? We’d absolutely love to hear about that as well.