Three Tips for Choosing the Right Hearing Protector

Posted on by CAPT William J. Murphy, Ph.D., Christa L. Themann, MA, CCC-A,CAPT Chucri (Chuck) A. Kardous, MS, PE, and CAPT David C. Byrne, Ph.D., CCC-A

We live in a noisy world. Some noises can damage our hearing, leading to hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and difficulty communicating especially in background noise. Permanent noise-induced hearing damage is incurable. If you cannot reduce your noise exposure by turning down the volume, moving away from the sound, or limiting the time you are exposed, hearing protection is your only option. But hearing protection comes in so many styles, materials, color, and sizes – how can you know which is best for you? National Protect Your Hearing Month is the perfect opportunity to discuss tips for picking the right hearing protector.

Figure 1: Selection of different hearing protection devices – Earplugs, Earmuffs, and Earbands

 

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.

Figure 2: Badly-inserted earplug, semi-inserted earplug, and properly-inserted earplug

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

CAPT William J. Murphy, Ph.D., is a research physicist with the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

Christa L. Themann, MA, CCC-A, is a research audiologist with the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

CAPT Chucri (Chuck) A. Kardous, MS, PE, is a research engineer with the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

CAPT David C. Byrne, Ph.D., CCC-A, is a research audiologist with the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

 

Additional resources:

NIOSH Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Best practice bulletin: Hearing protection-emerging trends: Individual Fit Testing

Hearing protection – OSH WIKI

Posted on by CAPT William J. Murphy, Ph.D., Christa L. Themann, MA, CCC-A,CAPT Chucri (Chuck) A. Kardous, MS, PE, and CAPT David C. Byrne, Ph.D., CCC-A

23 comments on “Three Tips for Choosing the Right Hearing Protector”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Unfortunately, I needed hearing protection from car collisions occurring in a canyon on a roadway. I have a very good set of noise cancelling headset that is sufficient for my regular hearing protection needs. However, I do still suffer some pain and loss in the ear most affected by the car collision reververation sound. The other ear is minorly affected by the echo off the canyon wall. I did report this to an insurance agent.

    i was never aware of the factors which should be considered while choosing a hearing protector. thank you for the information

    Good points. I prefer the muffs, actually radio muffs, which have worked well for me. Years ago I started with custom made earplugs, they certainly lasted and were good value for the price but of course, I couldn’t communicate with other wearers on my team.

    I’ve seen warnings on almost every brand of hearing protection radio ear muff warning about carcinogens. “Cancer and Reproductive Harm” may be caused by the materials used to make the product ( P65 Warnings.Ca.gov). Please let me know if you know of any radio muff that is made of non-carcinogenic materials? Thank you!

    That is a great question! In general, earmuffs are not recommended when you also have to wear eyeglasses or safety glasses. The temple piece creates a leak in the seal of the muff around the ear, which reduces the amount of sound reduction. For safety glasses, you can avoid the leakage problem by using safety glasses which attach around the head with Velcro straps (making sure the straps go over the muffs or under the headband to avoid the cushions surrounding the ear). For eyeglasses, if earplugs are not an option, choose a frame with the narrowest temple piece possible. Be aware that anything that disrupts the seal of the earmuff cushion will reduce the amount of noise reduction. If this cannot be avoided, you should be fit-tested to ensure you are getting enough sound attenuation despite the leak.

    Good to hear about the ear protector from this informative article. It gives me advanced knowledge about ear protectors and their benefits. Looking forward to recommending this article to my colleagues.

    After reading your article, I realized that I used to wear earplugs in the wrong way.
    Thank you very much for your explanation of this article.
    I would also like to know if you have more earplugs or other hearing protection devices recommended. I hope you can give me a reference.

    You are absolutely correct and thanks for giving information about hearing protection . I loved your blog and thanks for publishing this!! I am really happy to come across this exceptionally well written content. Thanks for sharing and look for more in future!!

    This article is helpful because everything discusses hearing protection. I am happy for your well written of the article. I learned so from your content. Thank you for publishing knowledgeable content.

    Can Noise Reducing/Noise Cancelling Earbuds be utilized as hearing protection?

    I read that although I may use a 33 NRR ear plug, I’m only getting a 13 DB reduction. Calc is 33-7 / 2 for 13. This is very confusing, as I see some earplugs with an NRR rating of 15 and 10, if the calc is correct , say, 10-7 / 2 would only be a DB reduction of 1.5. What is the value of having these lower NRR ratings? MY older snow blower pushes out 95DB, thus I would need to have both earplugs with a rating of 33 and ear muff (combined you only get 36) , to get close to a 15DB reduction. 36-7 /2 = 14.5 Am I understanding this correctly? If this correct, folks that bought ear plugs or muffs with a rating of 15, might be thinking they are getting a reduction of 15DB.

    Thanks for your comment. You hit the nail on the head regarding the problem with simply de-rating the NRR. While, as this blog pointed out, the NRR is a laboratory measured noise reduction value that often over-estimates the amount of protection someone gets with everyday use, a de-rated NRR is still just an educated guess. Most people – especially with training – will get more protection than the de-rated value. At the same time, some will get even less protection than the derated NRR. The only way to know how much sound reduction you are actually getting from your earplug is to have it fit-tested, which measures the sound in your ear with and without the hearing protector in place. Some employers and many audiologists offer hearing protector fit-testing. If you cannot be fit-tested, then the alternatives mentioned in the blog are good ways to know whether you are sufficiently protected from most loud sounds. Noise from lawn mowers typically ranges from around 86 to 96 dBA so about 10 dB of sound reduction is sufficient. Using the hand-cupping check or NIOSH QuickFitWeb, as described in the blog, will help you know whether your earplugs are giving you this much protection.

    Comfort is always an integral part in the selection and use of hearing protection devices, along with other considerations discussed in this blog. If noise levels consistently exceed 85 decibels (A weighted) in the workplace, and in the absence of engineering and other noise control measures, hearing protection is required to protect workers against hazardous exposure. Provided they are compatible with your job tasks, exposure level, and other personal protective equipment, earplugs might be a more comfortable alternative.

    In the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app manual, it says “There are special protectors for use with IMPULSE sounds that are designed to reduce short high-level sounds while allowing low-level sounds to be heard. For additional information on selecting hearing protection, check out the NIOSH Science Blog” which refers to this blog article. However, in this article there is no mention of special protectors for impulse sounds. Can a reference for such protectors be provided? Thank you.

    Hi, Joe ~

    Thanks for asking about the special types of hearing protection for impulsive noise exposures. These kinds of protectors include level-dependent (sometimes called “non-linear”) and sound restoration devices. They are mentioned briefly in this blog as useful for intermittent exposures, which include impulsive noise. Level-dependent hearing protectors provide different amounts of sound reduction at different background noise levels (in other words, the amount of sound reduction is dependent on the incoming noise level). When the background noise is low, sound passes through the protector without being significantly reduced. However, when sound levels are suddenly high (as with an impulse noise), the hearing protector reduces the sound level passing through the device. Sound restoration devices accomplish the same thing but in a different way. These hearing protectors use a microphone outside the protector to measure the noise in the environment. When the noise is low, it transmits sounds to a speaker under the protector so the wearer can hear the signals clearly. However, when the noise levels are high, the electronic circuitry shuts off or otherwise reduces the level of sound that is transmitted from the microphone to the speaker. NIOSH cannot recommend specific hearing protection devices, but we hope this general information is helpful to you. Please let us know if you have additional questions or need more information.

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Page last reviewed: March 5, 2021
Page last updated: March 5, 2021