Have you ever been to a rock concert and notice your ears feel like they're plugged by the end of the show? Normally, you’d wake up the next day and find your hearing returned to normal, but what if that sensation never went away?
People who work near noise hazards are at risk of losing their hearing permanently. If you had a choice between walking around like you’d just left a rock concert for the rest of your life or being able to hear every sound you encounter, what would you choose?
It's a no brainer, right? But when it comes time to selecting the PPE that will keep your workers' hearing safe, how do you make the most suitable choice? Are earplugs or earmuffs the best way to protected on a noisy job site?
Earplugs are possibly the most common form of hearing protection. They fit into the ear canal to dampen the noise exposure, especially low frequency noises.
There are three main types of earplugs to consider, depending on your needs:
- Expandable foam plugs – These are versatile, come in nearly every color imaginable, and are designed to fit in anybody’s ear canal. There are even small sizes available to ensure everyone's comfort and protection.
- Pre-molded ear plugs – These are made of silicone, plastic, or rubber and offer a washable, reusable alternative to the foam design. Generally available in small, medium, and large sizes, they effectively seal the ear canal without discomfort. Also, because of their design, pre-molded ear plugs don’t require touching the tips, which can be especially useful for dirty or dusty jobs.
- Canal caps – These offer the protection of earplugs with the added convenience of a headband that can be left hanging around the employee’s neck when not in use.
Ear plugs are inexpensive, portable, convenient to use with other PPE, and far more comfortable in hot, humid environments. However, because of their size they can easily be misplaced or lost. Ear plugs also require more time to properly insert and may irritate the employee’s ear if they are used improperly or they are equipped with the incorrect size.
Another common option for hearing protection are earmuffs. These cover the outer ear instead of protecting the ear canal but offer better protection for high frequency noise.
Earmuffs are also visible from distances, so supervisors can monitor compliance at a glance and they are not easily lost. Because they fit over the ear, they are unlikely to irritate the employee’s ear canal. Some models even include technology that allows wearers to communicate with others.
Unfortunately, earmuffs can be rather expensive and may be difficult to wear with glasses (safety or prescription) or other PPE required onsite. Earmuffs are also bulkier, making them uncomfortable or inconvenient in some work settings.
Making the Right Choice
Now that you know your options, how do you determine which hearing protection is right for your team?
What’s the Frequency?
Hearing protection is advised for workers on any site where the noise level exceeds 85 decibels (dB). To figure out what level of hearing protection our team needs, you need to factor in the noise level, frequency, and duration of exposure.
Many machines and power tools are labeled with the dB level they produce to help you determine the level of protection needed to operate them or work near someone operating them.
It’s important to consider other environmental issues when making this assessment. For example, are there sources of noise on the site that should be considered? Is there a significant amount of background noise?
Cause for Comfort
Choosing the proper hearing protection means accounting for the comfort of your employees. People are not likely to wear anything that causes pain or irritation, especially in a tender area like the ear canal and for the length of a workday. It is important to consider fit as much as the level of noise reduction.
What happens if you combine both and wear earplugs and earmuffs simultaneously? It's not unheard of – there is some discussion about their combined use – but dual protection is only advised in extreme noise environments (over 105 dBA) because it causes the employee to be significantly isolated from their surroundings.
Hear Me Out
Hearing protection is necessary on many worksites and it is crucial that you supply employees with the right options. Assess the noise levels and provide your employees with the proper protection based on the results. Remember, hearing protection may be required but your employees can still have some say in the matter. When more than one option would be compliant, consult them to find out what they'd prefer.