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Are earplugs always better than earmuffs?

By Karoly Ban Matei | Last updated: July 29, 2022

Earplugs and earmuffs are common pieces of PPE that serve the same purpose: reducing the noise intensity that reaches the ear canal. They're essential for avoiding damage to the auditory system while working in noisy environments.

While they cover the same scope, earplugs are a lot more common in the worksite than the earmuffs. OSHA standard 1910.95 states that “Employees shall be given the opportunity to select their hearing protectors from a variety of suitable hearing protectors provided by the employer.”

This might suggest that earplugs are more prevalent simply because employees perceive them to be better than earmuffs. And while this might be true to some extent, the question remains: are earplugs always better than earmuffs?


Advantages of Using Earplugs for Hearing Protection

As the name suggests, earplugs are small hearing protection devices that are designed to be inserted inside the ear canal.

They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and materials. They can be corded or uncorded, disposable or reusable, expandable or pre-molded, simple or with electronic noise control - all of which makes them extremely versatile. It seems like there is an earplug for everyone, no matter their needs or preferences. This versatility makes them superior to earmuffs.

Earplugs are moldable and tightly fit to the ear canal. Because of this, optimally inserted earplugs provide better noise protection than earmuffs.

(Learn more in Are You Wearing Your Earplugs Properly? It Might Be Destroying Your Hearing)

They are lightweight and take almost no space, which makes them easy to carry around. You can always keep some in your pocket in case you enter a noisy environment, without being inconvenienced by their weight or bulk. Their small size also makes them ideal for working in tight or confined spaces, where any extra bulk might result in pressure on the ear, entanglement, or removal of the hearing protection.

Their size and the fact that they do not protrude outside of the ear makes them an ideal choice when wearing other PPE, such as glasses, helmets, or hoods. They can be worn without interfering with these other items of PPE, and this other protective gear won't diminish the noise blocking ability of the earplugs.

Earplugs, moreover, have minimal heat conducting abilities. That makes them ideal for hot and humid working environments.

(Learn more in A Sweaty Situation: PPE, Hydration, and How to Manage Both)

Finally, most ear plugs are substantially less expensive that ear muffs, making them an economical choice.

Advantages of Using Earmuffs for Hearing Protection

With all this being said it appears that indeed ear plugs are better than earmuffs. But despite their versatility, earplugs also have limitations.

Earplug efficiency depends on the fit. Any incompatibility with the user’s ear anatomy or improper insertion can result in inadequate protection and a false sense of security.

The tight fit, especially when worn over longer periods of time, could make the user uncomfortable, itchy, and sometimes can even result in pain. Earmuffs are a lot more comfortable.

Because of their small size and the way they mold to the ear, the user has to handle the part that is inserted in the ear. This makes good hand hygiene mandatory to avoid ear infection, something that might be difficult to maintain in certain working conditions.

The same small size could make them hard to handle in cold or other hazardous environments, where the user is wearing gloves.

Finally, properly inserting earplugs requires time and practice, while we can literally snap on a pair of earmuffs in less then a second.

The Verdict

Despite their versatility, earplugs are not always a superior choice to earmuffs. Both have advantages and drawbacks. Your decision about which one to use should be driven by the hazard assessment and the application. If all things are equal, then personal preference can act as another selection criteria.

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PPE Hearing Protection

Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

Profile Picture of Karoly Ban Matei

Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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