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5 Tips for Choosing the Right PPE Hearing Protection

Posted by Xamax on 01/05/17 14:06

In noisy work environments, having the correct, PPE-approved hearing protection is paramount since the consequences of not safeguarding your hearing are dire.  But how do you choose the right PPE hearing protection for your particular industry?

Hearing Protection PPE

There are four main types of hearing protection available: corded or banded earplugs, ear muffs, helmet mounted ear muffs, and disposable ear plugs (which can be combined with the previous two forms).

The Health and Safety Executive website has a section on ‘Noise at Work’ to provide information on your rights at work as they pertain to hearing safety, but here’s an overview of what you need to know in 5 Tips for Choosing the Right PPE Hearing Protection.


1. Make sure your hearing protection meets Safety European Standards

The UK alone sees over 17,000 people suffering from deafness, ringing in the ears, or other conditions caused by noisy work environments.

The Noise Regulations of 2005 ensure that employers control noise levels at work, or provide the correct safety equipment when employees are exposed to higher than standard decibels, especially for noisy industries such as construction, demolition, road repair, woodworking, certain factories, plastics processing, engineering, textile manufacture, foundries, and so forth.

There is an exhaustive list of European Safety standards - 17 in total - that companies must follow, but most suppliers provide PPE approved hearing protection that meet these standards. A few of the main standards are as follows:

  • EN 352-1: 2002 - Hearing protectors - Ear muffs
  • EN 352-2:2002 - Hearing protectors - Ear plugs
  • EN 352-3:2002 - Hearing protectors - Ear muffs attached to a safety helmet
  • EN 458:2004 - Hearing protectors - Selection, use, care and maintenance

Make sure to find ear protection that meets these safety standards.


2. Choose the type of hearing protection that meets your purpose

When you’re choosing the right hearing protection for your industry, consider the level of noise that needs to be filtered out - and what level needs to be kept in. You need to decide between simple ear plugs or ear muffs (or a  variation of both).

Both types offer hearing protection, but earplugs offer more. The Noise Reduction Rating or (NRR) for earplugs is between 22 and 33 dB (decibels) whilst the NRR for ear muffs is between 20 and 30 dB. However, combining the two will provide additional - and perhaps the best - protection.

Keep in mind that a normal conversation is about 60 dB, and sounds of 85 dB and higher are harmful, depending on the length of exposure. A basic formula for figuring out how much hearing protection your device offers is as follows: ([NRR in dB] - 7 )/2 = sound level.

For example, say, you’re at a loud concert and the noise exposure is 100 dB, and you’re wearing a 33 dB hearing protection device, the noise level you’d now hear would be 87 dB (33-7 = 26; 26/2 = 13; 100-13= 87 dB). A product with a hearing protection level of 27 dB would deduct 10 decibels of sound from your environment (27-7/2=10).

You need to figure out what level of sound you need to reduce to figure out how many dB of protection you need minimum. All employers must reduce sound to about 80 dB with the upper limit being 87 dB. Most hearing protection has an 8 hour exposure rating. Consider these limits:

  • 70-90 dB for heavy machinery, electric motors, garbage disposal, and city traffic
    • Construction, factory, or on highway work sites, and so on
  • 100-120 dB for a jack hammer, power saw, motorcycle, lawn mower, and rock music
    • Carpentry, construction, and so on
  • 140+ dB for jet engines, and gunshots (pain level)
    • Airport industry, and in police work

For most of these industries (excepting workplaces with over 140 dB), any type of hearing protection would reduce the sound to a safe level.

As far as pros and cons of each - NNR aside - with banded ear plugs, ear muffs, and helmet mounted ear muffs, there’s less variation amongst users, one size fits most heads, they’re easily seen at a distance, not easily lost, and may be worn with minor ear infections. The downsides are they’re generally heavier and less portable, uncomfortable in hot, humid areas, inconvenient for confined spaces, and can interfere with prescription glasses.

Disposable ear plugs, on the other hand, are small, easily carried, can be used in conjunction with other hearing protection, and are convenient in small spaces, but the cons are that they require more fit time, better hygiene, may irritate the ear canal, are easily lost, and not easily seen.

 Construction site with crane and building


3. Consider the replacement rate of each type of hearing protection 

How soon the product wears out is a factor when placing large orders of hearing protection equipment for your company. Consider the following replacement rates:

  • Banded ear plugs should be replaced when:
    • product shows wear and tear
    • earbuds are no longer pliable
    • headbands are stretched
    • every 6-8 months for normal wear
    • every 3-4 months with heavy use or humid / extreme climates
  • Ear muffs and helmet mounted ear muffs should be replaced when:
    • product shows wear and tear
    • ear cushions degrade
    • earbuds are no longer pliable
    • headbands are stretched
    • every 6-8 months for normal wear
    • every 3-4 months with heavy use or humid / extreme climates
  • Disposable ear plugs should be replaced:
    • daily (or within reason) since they can harbour bacteria and earwax
    • may not stand up to washing


4. Consider comfort and fit

Your employees are more likely to wear their hearing protection if it’s comfortable. Although it seems common sense to wear hearing protection - as common sense as wearing sunscreen daily - how many employees skip out on uncomfortable hearing protection?

The best way to guarantee comfort is to make sure the hearing protection fits correctly. Ensure there’s a tight seal with the ear canal (for ear plugs) or against the side of the head (for ear muffs). Hair and clothing shouldn’t be in the way. For earplugs, most of the foam body should be in the ear canal. To double check that the fit for ear plugs is correct, cup your hands over your ears, and when you remove them, the sound level should not be different. If the sound has altered then the seal hasn’t been put in place properly, and they need to be re-fit.

There are different types of disposable ear plugs and banded ones that ensure comfort, and many ear muff brands have adjustable, comfortable straps, and soft ear cushions. For ear muffs attached to a safety helmet, most ear muffs have soft ear cushions, and the comfort will depend on the comfort of the helmet itself. Have your employees try out different types of hearing protection to find out what works best for them. 5191117179_101395dcf9_b.jpgimage credit

5. Consider ease of maintenance and storage 

When choosing the right type of protection for your employees, make sure you consider how easy each type of protection is to maintain and store.

For maintenance, you should check that each type of ear plug or ear muff:
  • works effectively
  • is in good, clean condition
  • has undamaged seals
  • headband tension not reduced
  • no unofficial modifications
  • check for wear and tear
Replace immediately if any of these are defective. For cleaning and storing ear muffs:
  • disassemble ear muffs to clean
  • wash with mild liquid detergent and rinse in warm water
  • ensure sound attenuating material inside ear cushions does not get wet
  • remove skin, oil, and dirt that can harden ear cushions with a soft brush
  • squeeze excess moisture from ear cushions and place on clean surface to air dry
  • store in original case to protect from contamination, loss, damage, damp or sunlight
  • Replace when ear cushions and foam inserts degrade
 For cleaning and storing banded ear plugs:
  • wash with mild liquid detergent and rinse in warm water
  • remove skin, oil, and dirt that can harden ear cushions with a soft brush
  • squeeze excess moisture from ear cushions and place on clean surface to air dry
  • keep in a case to protect from contamination, loss, damage, damp or sunlight
  • replace pods every 2-4 weeks
 For cleaning and storing disposable ear plugs:
  • dispose daily (recommended since they are inexpensive)
  • or keep in cases for reuse (within reason since these are quick to harbour bacteria and you don’t want your employees off sick with messy ear infections for the sake of a few pounds)
  • check packaging to see if they can be cleaned

Most hearing protection - including ear muffs - are relatively inexpensive with disposable ear plugs being the cheapest option.  

46655346_880a8353ce_b-375322-edited.jpgimage credit

Hearing safety is vital to keeping your employees safe and happy, so make sure you make an informed decision when selecting the right PPE Hearing Protection. But - most importantly - with price points being relatively similar and all PPE products sold meeting European safety standards, consult those who will be wearing the hearing protection to decide together on what’s most comfortable for them. After all, it’s the employee that you’re trying to keep safe.

Need more help meeting PPE safety standards? Download our PPE Checklist: 

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