Noise can be bothersome and sometimes fun, but in all cases, a sound that is too loud for too long can damage one’s hearing. Repeated exposure to hazardous sound can cause permanent hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and trouble understanding speech in background noise. The best way to prevent noise-induced hearing damage is to reduce exposure by turning down the volume, moving away from the sound, or limiting exposure time. If you cannot take any of those steps, then you should use hearing protection. Follow these guidelines to choose the right hearing protector.
1. Know how much noise reduction you need. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends wearing hearing protection whenever sound levels are 85 dBA or higher. Check how loud a sound is by using a sound measuring app such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter (bit.ly/NIOSHsoundapp). If you do not have an app, a good rule of thumb is that noise is too loud if you need to shout to be heard by someone an arm’s length away.
Hearing protectors are labeled with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). However, the NRR is measured in a laboratory and most people get far less noise reduction than the NRR suggests. Fortunately, most hazardous sounds require just 5 or 10 dB of noise reduction to be safe, and almost any hearing protector, when fit correctly, can provide 10 dB of protection. An easy way to know whether your hearingprotection is fit correctly is to listen for a change in how you hear your own voice; if your voice sounds deeper, fuller, or more hollow, you likely have a good fit.
If the noise is 100 dBA or greater (such as chainsaws or jackhammers) or if it is impulsive (such as nail guns or firearm noise), you should wear double hearingprotection (earmuffs over earplugs).
2. Think about the listening situation. Factors beyond noise levels need to be considered. For example, will you be wearing eyeglasses, sunglasses, or eye protection? What about hats, helmets, or head protection? Eyeglass frames and headgear can interfere with the seal of an earmuff, making earplugs a better choice. Will your hands be getting dirty? If so, avoid using foam earplugs, which must be rolled down with your fingers before insertion. Will it be very hot or very cold? Earmuffs can be uncomfortable in hot environments; earmuff cushions may not seal tightly in very cold environments.
Consider the kinds of sounds involved. Will the noise be continuous or intermittent? Earmuffs and pre-formed earplugs are easier to remove and replace frequently than foam plugs. Corded protectors keep earplugs handy if you don’t have pockets or a purse. Will you be listening to music or need to talk to people while wearing hearing protection? Flat attenuation earplugs or earmuffs (also called musician’s earplugs) preserve sound fidelity and would be the best choice. Will the environment generally be quiet except for sudden bursts of sound such as firecrackers or target shooting? Level-dependent or sound restoration hearingprotectors allow sound to pass through when it is quiet and become protective when it is loud.
3. Consider comfort and convenience. Once you have narrowed your selection down to hearing protectors that are appropriate for your noise exposure and compatible with what you will be doing when you wear them, the choice is completely up to you! Remember, though, that 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.
DISCLAIMER: The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily re-present the official position of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.