If you work in any environment with excessive noise, you need to wear earplugs. It’s an important piece of PPE – OSHA estimates that 22 million American workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year, and an estimated $242 million is spent on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability annually.

But did you know that wearing earplugs improperly does about as much good as not wearing them at all? In this article, we’ll go over how you to use them correctly to ensure maximum hearing protection.

Why Wear Earplugs?

It’s a well-known fact that exposure to high levels of noise can cause short-term and permanent hearing loss. But what qualifies as "high" levels of noise? According to the CDC:

  • Noise around 85 decibels can damage your hearing after repeated exposures lasting eight hours or more.
    • E.g., printing presses, lawn mowers, vacuuming
  • Noise level of 95 decibels or higher can be hazardous to your hearing in less than one hour
    • E.g. bulldozers, emergency sirens, chain saws

In addition to the physical stress it places on your ears, loud noise in the workplace also creates psychological stress. It can negatively impact productivity and concentration, interfere with communication, and make it difficult to hear important safety warning signals (learn about The Effects of Noise on the Body).

Wearing earplugs will minimize a worker's exposure to dangerous decibel levels. But to truly protect the user's hearing, earplugs must be inserted properly.

Properly Fitting Your Earplugs

The process for inserting earplugs varies slightly depending on what type of earplug you're using.

If you’re using soft foam (disposable) earplugs, follow these easy steps to ensure proper insertion:

  1. Roll the earplug between your thumb and forefinger to create a thin "snake"
  2. With your opposite hand, grab onto the top of your ear and pull it up and back (this will help straighten out your ear canal)
  3. Push the rounded tip of the earplug into your ear canal, leaving the stem outside your ear – it should slide in without much force
  4. Holding the earplug in place, count to 20 out loud while waiting for it to expand and fill the ear canal (you’ll know it has made a good seal when your voice sounds muffled)

If you’re using pre-molded earplugs, follow these steps:

  1. Hold the stem of the earplug between your thumb and forefinger
  2. Gently push the rounded tip of the earplug into your ear canal, leaving only the stem outside your ear
  3. While still holding the stem, use your opposite hand to grab the top of your ear – pull it up and out to open the ear canal

With either type of earplug, be sure to twist the earplug a bit before removing it from your ear. This will help break the seal and minimize discomfort.

Earplugs vs. Earmuffs

Earmuffs are a common alternative to earplugs. While earplugs are inserted into the ear canal, earmuffs are soft ear cushions that fit around the ear with a hard outer shell. There are, of course, advantages to each and the best choice depends on the context and user preferences. In some cases, earplugs and earmuffs can be worn together for added protection.


Earplugs

Earmuffs

Benefits

  • Small and easy to carry
  • Easily used in conjunction with other PPE or with glasses
  • Comfortable for long-term wear and in hot or humid environments
  • Easy to use in confined work spaces
  • Less attenuation variability among workers
  • One size fits most people
  • Easy to monitor use
  • Not easily misplaced or lost

Drawbacks

  • Takes time to fit properly
  • Harder to insert and remove
  • Can irritate the ear canal
  • Easily misplaced or lost
  • Difficult to monitor employee usage
  • Heavier and less portable
  • Doesn’t always work with other PPE
  • Not suitable for workers with glasses
  • Not suitable for use in confined spaces
  • Can be uncomfortable in hot or humid environments


Stay Protected

Like them or not, earplugs are an important piece of PPE for workers who are exposed to loud noise on the job. But if they don’t fit properly, their effectiveness diminishes significantly.

Knowing how to properly fit earplugs is essential. All workers in need of hearing protection should be trained on how to correctly insert the earplugs they’ll be using, and refresher training should take place regularly to ensure continued proper use.