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CCOHS: Hearing Protectors

Feb. 04, 2024
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How can I protect my hearing at work?

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The surest method of preventing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is to eliminate the source or to reduce noise at the source by engineering methods. However, in certain situations, these measures are not possible. In such workplaces, workers may need to wear hearing protectors to reduce the amount of noise reaching the ears.

What are some things I should know about selecting hearing protection devices?

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People should wear a hearing protector if the noise or sound level they are exposed to is close to or greater than the occupational exposure limits (OEL) for noise. For most jurisdictions, this occupational exposure limit is 85 decibels (A-weighted) or dBA. Hearing protectors reduce the noise exposure level and the risk of hearing loss when worn correctly.

If hearing protection is required, then a complete hearing conservation program should be implemented. A hearing conservation program includes noise assessment, methods for controlling noise, hearing protector selection, employee training and education, audiometric testing, maintenance, inspection, record keeping, and program evaluation.

The effectiveness of hearing protection is reduced greatly if the hearing protectors do not fit properly, are not inserted or worn correctly, if they are worn only periodically, or if they are removed even for a short period of time. To maintain their effectiveness, the hearing protection should not be modified. Music earphones or headsets are not substitutes for hearing protectors and should not be worn where hearing protectors are required to protect against exposure to noise.

Select hearing protection that is:

  • Correct for the job. Refer to the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Standard Z94.2-14 (R2019) “Hearing Protection Devices - Performance, Selection, Care and Use” or contact the agency responsible for occupational health and safety legislation in your jurisdiction for more information.
  • Adequate for the protection or noise attenuation required. Check the manufacturer's literature.
  • Compatible with other required personal protective equipment, or communication devices.
  • Comfortable enough to be worn.
  • Appropriate for the temperature and humidity in the workplace.
  • Able to provide adequate communication and audibility needs (e.g., the ability to hear alarms or warning sounds).

What types of hearing protectors are available?

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Earplugs are inserted in the ear canal. They may be premolded (preformed), moldable, rolldown foam, push-to-fit, or custom molded. Disposable, reusable and custom earplugs are available.

Semi-insert earplugs consist of two earplugs held over the ends of the ear canal by a rigid headband.

Earmuffs consist of sound-attenuating material and soft ear cushions that fit around the ear and hard outer cups. They are held together by a headband.

How do I pick my hearing protectors?

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The choice of hearing protectors is a very personal one and depends on a number of factors including level of noise, comfort, and the suitability of the hearing protector for both the worker and the environment. Most importantly, the hearing protector should provide the desired noise reduction. It is best, where hearing protectors must be used, to provide a choice of a number of different types and sizes to choose from.

If the noise exposure is intermittent, earmuffs are more desirable since it may be inconvenient to remove and reinsert earplugs. 
 

How can I find out how much a hearing protector can reduce a worker's exposure to noise?

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Manufacturers provide information about the noise-reducing capability of a hearing protector, referred to as an NRR (noise reduction rating) value. The NRR is based on laboratory conditions, therefore, calculations to de-rate the noise reduction rating should be done to reflect workplace conditions (see further below).

CSA Standard Z94.2-14 (R2019) “Hearing protection devices — Performance, selection, care, and use” defines noise reduction rating as “a single number rating that indicates the overall hearing protector attenuation, computed as the difference between the overall C-weighted level of a noise spectrum having equal energy per octave and the A-weighted noise levels under a hearing protector, using mean attenuation data less two standard deviations, derived from the experimenter-fit-procedure of the 1974 edition of ANSI Z3.19 (withdrawn) as defined in EPA (1979)”. 

How do I use Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) values to determine the protection provided by a hearing protector?

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The NRR, or other similar systems such as the single number rating (SNR), is a method to more accurately determine the effective exposure of a person when wearing a hearing protector. These rating systems attempt to estimate the actual sound protection provided by hearing protectors when worn in actual working environments (vs. laboratory testing situations). The “real world” results are often different than laboratory tests with the main reasons for this difference being poor fit, and lack of proper training, supervision, and enforcement. For these reasons, training on the correct fit, and making sure users have a thorough understanding of hearing loss are important elements of the hearing conservation program.

Detailed calculations of the protection provided by a hearing protector involve using octave band analysis of the workplace noise and the noise attenuation provided by the hearing protector for noise in each octave band. Attenuation is defined by CSA Standard Z94.2-14 (R2019) “Hearing protection devices — Performance, selection, care, and use” as “the reduction in sound pressure level incident upon the ear due to the application of a hearing protector or, specifically, the change in hearing threshold level that results when a hearing protector is worn.”

Calculating noise attenuation of hearing protection and de-rating noise reduction values (NRR)

Source: CSA Z94.2-14 (R2019) “Hearing protection devices — Performance, selection, care, and use” Table 2

Earplugs 
Percent of NRR achieved: 50% 
For use with dBA: Leq – [NRR (0.50) – 3] = XX dBA 
For use with dBC: Lceq – NRR (0.5) = XX dBA

Earmuffs 
Percent of NRR achieved: 70% 
For use with dBA: Leq – [NRR (0.7) – 3] = XX dBA 
For use with dBC: Lceq – NRR (0.7) = XX dBA

Dual Protection (use of earplugs and earmuffs) 
Percent of NRR achieved: 65% 
For use with dBA: Leq– [(NRR + 5) (0.65) – 3] = XX dBA 
For use with dBC: Lceq – (NRR + 5) (0.65) = XX dBA

The NRR used for dual-protection calculations is higher of the individual NRRs of the two devices. 
Note: Certain CSA Group standards are available for online viewing. To access these, you must first create an account with “CSA Communities”.

Go to: "https://community.csagroup.org/login.jspa?referer=%252Findex.jspa" 
Once you are logged in, click on the text below the “OHS Standards / View Access” graphic. 
Click on the jurisdiction of your choice to see the CSA Standards as referenced in that legislation. 
Standards may also be purchased from CSA Group: "https://store.csagroup.org/"

As an example:

Measured workplace noise time-weighted average (TWA) exposure = 98 dBA 
Earplug with NRR = 29 dB 
Estimated noise exposure = 98 – [29(0.5) - 3] = 86.5 dBA

CSA Standard Z94.2-14 (R2019) provides further guidance on how to apply NRR calculations.

What is a Single Number Rating (SNR)?

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Both types of hearing protection offer advantages and disadvantages.

Earplugs can be mass-produced or individually molded to fit the ear. They can be reusable or disposable. On the positive side, they are simple to use, less expensive than muffs, and often more comfortable to wear when in hot or damp work areas. Some disadvantages are they provide less noise protection than some muffs, and should not be used in areas exceeding 105 dBA. Earplugs are less visible than  muffs, making it more difficult to confirm if they are worn. They must be properly inserted and inserted hygienically to provide adequate protection.

Earmuffs can vary with respect to the material and depth of the dome and the force of the headband. The deeper and heavier the dome, the greater the low-frequency attenuation provided by the protector. The headband must fit tightly enough to maintain a proper seal, yet not be too tight for comfort. Some advantages are that earmuffs usually provide greater protection than plugs, although this is not always true. They are easier to fit, generally more durable than plugs, and they have replaceable parts. On the negative side, they are more expensive and often less comfortable than plugs, especially in hot work areas. In areas where noise levels are very high, muffs and plugs can be worn together to give better protection.

The following table summarizes the differences between earplugs and earmuffs.

Comparison of Hearing ProtectionEarplugsEarmuffs 

Advantages:

  • small and easily carried
  • convenient to use with other personal protection equipment (can be worn with earmuffs)
  • more comfortable for long-term wear in hot, humid work areas
  • convenient for use in confined work areas 
     

Advantages:

  • less attenuation variability among users
  • designed so that one size fits most head sizes
  • easily seen at a distance to assist in the monitoring of their use
  • not easily misplaced or lost
  • may be worn with minor ear infections

 

 

Disadvantages:

  • requires more time to fit
  • more difficult to insert and remove
  • requires good hygiene practices
  • may irritate the ear canal
  • easily misplaced
  • more difficult to see and monitor usage

Disadvantages:

  • less portable and heavier
  • more inconvenient for use with other personal protective equipment.
  • more uncomfortable in hot, humid work area

  • more inconvenient for use in confined work areas

  • may interfere with the wearing of safety or prescription glasses: wearing glasses results in breaking the seal between the earmuff and the skin and results in decreased hearing protection.

Why is user preference so important?

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The human aspects of hearing protection are particularly important since the only useful kind of protection is the protection that is actually worn. Some people do not accept particular kinds of protectors; every human being is different, and the anatomy of the ear and ear canal can vary significantly from person to person.

It is a good idea for the employer to provide a number of different types and sizes of hearing protection from which workers can choose, keeping in mind any safety or hygienic reasons for not providing a particular kind of protector. That is, a particular type of protector should not be used if noise levels are too high or if it proves to be inadequate from a hygienic point of view. For example, earplugs which are used in a plant setting where people reuse them throughout the day, often reinserting them with dirty fingers, can introduce dirt and bacteria into the ears, causing ear infections.

The bottom line on hearing protection is worker preference. If the workers do not like the type of protection (for example, if it is uncomfortable, does not fit well, or is impractical), they will not wear it.

What should I know about the fit of my hearing protectors?

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 Follow the manufacturer's instructions. With earplugs, for example, the ear should be pulled outward and upward with the opposite hand to enlarge and straighten the ear canal, and insert the plug with clean hands.

  • Ensure the hearing protector tightly seals within the ear canal or against the side of the head. Hair and clothing should not be in the way.

What happens to the protection level when hearing protectors are removed for short periods of time?

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In order to get the full benefit, hearing protectors must be worn all the time during noisy work. If hearing protectors are removed only for a short duration, the protection is substantially reduced. The following table gives a maximum protection provided for non-continuous use of an ideally fitted 100% efficient hearing protector. For example, when hearing protection is rated with an attenuation of 25dB, if one takes off their hearing protector for 5 minutes in an hour the maximum protection will be reduced to no more than 11dB.

Impact of removing hearing protectorTime removed (in 1 hr)Maximum 25 dB protection is reduced to (dB)0 minno reduction1 min175 min1110 min830 min360 min0

Source: Removal of hearing protectors severely reduces protection. Health and Safety Executive, UK (no date)

Hearing protectors must be used ALL THE TIME to get the full benefit.

How should I care for my hearing protection device?

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  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Check hearing protection regularly for wear and tear.
  • Replace ear cushions or plugs that are no longer pliable.
  •  Replace the device when headbands are so stretched that they do not keep ear cushions snugly against the head.
  • Disassemble earmuffs to clean.
  • Wash earmuffs with a mild liquid detergent in warm water, and then rinse in clear warm water. Ensure that the sound-attenuating material inside the ear cushions does not get wet.
  • Use a soft brush to remove skin oil and dirt that can harden ear cushions.
  • Squeeze excess moisture from the plugs or cushions, then place them on a clean surface to air dry. (Check the manufacturer's recommendations first to find out if the earplugs are washable.)
     

 

 

  • Fact sheet last revised: 2023-06-08

Hearing Protection

Keeping your ears well protected is an important part of life for a number of people, from those who work in loud environments to those who attend a lot of concerts. Being exposed to noise over a certain decibel level can be problematic and lead to hearing loss, whether temporarily or in the longer term. This makes it all the more important that you consider how you will best be protected if you are likely to find yourself experiencing a lot of noise – even on a one-off basis.

There are different types of hearing protection, which vary mostly between different types of earplugs and earmuffs. The former sit inside the ear and block sound from entering the ear canal and can be disposable or potentially made for more permanent use, earmuffs, meanwhile, sit over the ear itself. They may be connected by a strap that sits over the wearer’s head or integrated into headwear that is worn as part of personal protective equipment for work.

To understand how to choose hearing protection, and how to get the best use from it, it is useful to know the following essential information.

Wearing the Wrong Kind of Ear Protection Can Cause Problems

Both earplugs and earmuffs have their uses for people seeking to protect their hearing. Picking the right one for your purposes depends on one question above all, which is what is your reason for needing ear protection?

If you are seeking ear protection because you will be exposed to noise that will be intermittent, then earmuffs are the better choice. When the noise dies down, you will often want to remove your ear protection for one reason or another. Earmuffs are much easier to remove and put back on than earplugs, and much easier to keep track of once they have been removed.

If however the noise is going to be more continuous, earplugs are the better choice, as you can just leave them in until the noise is over once and for all. For obvious reasons, though, they should be carefully looked after, as they are hard to find once you lose track of them.

It is Important to Check Your Ear Protection Before and After Each Use

One of the vital provisions of ear protection is that it blocks out sound indiscriminately, protecting your hearing from excessive volumes of noise. It does this by creating a seal between your inner ear and the source of noise. Hearing protection can be vulnerable to wear and tear, especially when it is used often, and so it is vital that you check your ear protection for any signs of damage before and after every use.

Wearing damaged ear protection will offer less of a guard against excessive noise, and could result in you experiencing hearing loss, especially if it is worn on more than one occasion. It is important to replace any damaged ear protection as soon as you are aware of an issue. If you experience any hearing loss in the aftermath of wearing incorrect ear protection, it is essential to make an appointment with an audiologist to ascertain the extent of the loss. This is also your opportunity to ask any questions about hearing protection you may have.

Make Sure Your Ear Protection Works for You

When it comes to protective equipment such as hearing protection, it is of vital importance to verify that it fits you properly. It’s not a case of finding something that fits enough; if you wear earmuffs that are not the right size for your head, then you may find that they don’t properly sit over the ear and therefore they allow noise to get in. Equally, if you try to insert a larger earplug into your ear canal when it’s too small for the plug, you may find that the earplug has a harder time sitting in there and it may eventually be pushed out.

Finding ear protection that fits your anatomy is far more than simply an aesthetic or convenience matter. It is inescapably more important than that, as the wrong ear protection can increase the chance of you losing hearing in the short or long term. Although it may be better than nothing in the short run, it is essential to remember that the wrong ear protection will not work and could end up doing more harm than good, particularly if you behave as though your ears were fully protected when they clearly were not.

It is important to take things seriously when it comes to protecting your hearing. Taking the above information into account is one way to be sure that you will continue to get the best from your hearing protection. To learn more about Baker Audiology & Hearing Aids, call us today at (605) 610-3466.

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