Many people face the tragedy of occupational hearing loss. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that around 30 million people in the U.S. are exposed to dangerously loud noise each year. Unfortunately, people exposed to extreme levels of noise are most prone to permanent hearing loss.
Using the right ear protection can prevent irreparable damage to your eardrums. The best ear plugs for you may not be the best ear plugs for another person, so it takes a little research to determine what type of hearing protection you need.
Ear Protection: What You Need to Know
Not all hearing protection is created equal; different types perform different functions, and you need to select the ear protectors that fit your situation. There are five major types of hearing protection:
- Disposable foam ear plugs are made from materials that are designed to conform to the shape of your ear; most are intended for one-time use. Disposable foam ear plugs are economical and fit most adults, but may not be suitable for children or in high-intensity noise situations.
- Reusable ear plugs are made from more durable materials, like silicone and rubber. Quality reusable ear plugs can be washed and used several times before they deteriorate. This type of hearing protection comes in various shapes and sizes to ensure a proper fit and maximum protection; they are generally a cost-effective way to manage most noise. Some reusable ear plugs are specifically designed to block frequent bursts of loud noise, while others are created to block constant levels of background noise.
- Hearing bands, which are sometimes called canal caps, are reusable ear plugs affixed to a plastic band that wraps around the head or neck. The band keeps the reusable ear plugs in place without interfering with hard hats, safety glasses or other personal protective equipment. Hearing bands are generally affordable and can help shut out low- to medium-intensity noise; however, the amount and type of noise your hearing band will block depends largely on the type of reusable ear plugs attached to it.
- Earmuffs are used to muffle and block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Most types are adjustable, and some are designed to fit behind the wearer’s neck, on top of the head, or attached to a hard hat mount. Earmuffs may not work well for people with heavy facial hair, those who must wear eyeglasses or eye protection, or other safety gear that can interfere with the band or seal.
- Electronic headsets are wired to block impulsive noises; they’re often called noise-cancelling headsets because they counteract the noises coming from outside. Some electronic headsets are wired for crystal-clear communication, like those used by the military in combat situations. Noise-cancelling headsets can block low-, medium- and high-intensity noises. However, like earmuffs, they may not seal well on people wearing eye protection or those with facial hair.
Choosing the Best Ear Protection for Your Situation
If you only need ear plugs occasionally, or if you’re on a cost-cutting mission, disposable foam ear plugs or reusable ear plugs may be right for you.
When wearing other safety gear is a priority, you may need to purchase a hearing band or canal cap. Since hearing bands keep ear plugs secure without compromising other types of safety gear, like eye and head protection, they’re ideal for construction sites, machine shops and similar situations.
Earmuffs and electronic headsets are ideal for people who prefer their entire ears covered for noise protection. Though earmuffs aren’t technically noise-cancelling devices, they can block most background noise more effectively than disposable ear plugs, reusable ear plugs and hearing bands. Electronic headsets are best for people who need to communicate while blocking outside noise, people who are subjected to constant background noise that can potentially harm their hearing, and people who prefer to shut out nearly all incoming noise.
Hearing Protection: Keep Your Ears Intact
Hearing loss due to occupational noise exposure is 100 percent preventable. Since there are many types of highly effective - and affordable - hearing protection available today, there’s no reason to risk permanent damage or deafness for work.