Selecting hearing protectors for your employees from the hundreds of different types, styles, shapes and sizes of devices can be a challenge. 3M can help.
The noise reduction provided by conventional attenuation devices is the same regardless of the level of the noise. These are designed to provide the employee with a consistent amount of attenuation throughout the work day.
The noise reduction provided by level-dependent hearing protectors varies with the level of the noise. This type of protector provides more noise reduction at high noise levels and is particularly effective for:
Level-dependent HPDs may be non-electronic (passive) or electronic (active). Electronic level-dependent HPDs feature environmental microphones to pick up low level sounds. The wearer can adjust the volume of the incoming sounds for their preferred listening level.
Low frequency sounds (bass) are reduced by about the same amount as high frequency sounds (treble) for a more natural sound quality. Originally designed for musicians, these can also be used in occupational hearing conservation. Most uniform attenuation HPDs provide lower noise reduction overall and may be a good choice for employees with lower noise exposures.
If hearing protectors aren’t comfortable, easy to use, or they interfere excessively with the ability of workers to hear, the percentage of time that employees wear hearing protection, known as wear time, may decrease. Even the best hearing protectors aren’t as likely to be used if they aren’t convenient and compatible with the work being done and the clothing & other PPE being worn. Workers not only need to be protected from hazardous loud sounds, but they also often need to be able to hear and communicate on the job.
Workers who need to put their hearing protection on in a hurry or who take off and put on hearing protection many times every day may also appreciate push-to-fit style earplugs that are “ready to wear” and banded hearing protectors that are quick and easy to put on.
Employees who wear hearing protection may also need to wear other types of protection, such as respiratory, eye, face and head protection. Plan for how these different types of PPE will work together and evaluate the selections, to be sure that the required performance of one type of PPE is not compromised by use of another. Adapters to allow earmuffs to attach to hard hats and face shields can be a way to minimize this issue in many cases. When adapters aren’t available or practical, earmuffs with a neck band are a convenient alternative along with banded hearing protectors. Note that interference with the seal of conventional over-the-head earmuffs, such as from safety eyewear, head wear (such as baseball caps or bandanas), or other items might result in several dB loss of attenuation – so ear plugs should also be considered, whether as an alternative or an addition to the ear muffs.
Compatibility with the work being done is also critical. In dirty, dusty situations, washable reusable earplugs may be preferred. In the food industry, metal-detectable earplugs are sometimes required to help employers prevent contamination from earplugs and cords.
Some employees may worry that they won’t be able to hear when they wearing hearing protection. While it’s true that HPD wearers won’t hear as much as they did without hearing protection, in most cases, people with normal hearing will be able to hear well enough with hearing protection if:
For very noisy situations, hearing protectors may allow you to listen at a more comfortable level, much like sun glasses help you see more clearly on a bright sunny day.
When workplace noise reaches 85 dBA and higher, we must shout at each other to communicate. With no hearing protection, your ears cannot easily process the shouting and the noise and the ability to accurately hear conversation is reduced. Your ears are, literally, overloaded with sound. On top of that, you may be experiencing temporary hearing loss, adding to the problem.
This is like going to the beach without sun glasses. Your eyes are overloaded with light making it difficult to see clearly.
When you wear hearing protection, very loud sounds are reduced to a more comfortable level. At this level, your ears are able to process the noise, conversation and important warning sounds more normally with less distortion.
This is like wearing sun glasses at the beach. The shaded lenses bring the light down to a level where your eyes are able to process what you are seeing with less distortion.
However, wearing high attenuation hearing protectors in low-noise situations (below 85 dBA for example) may result in overprotection and cause an undesirable reduction in ability to hear and communicate.
This is similar to wearing dark sunglasses after sundown or on a cloudy day. When the light is at much lower levels, the addition of sunglasses results in overprotection and may make it more difficult to see.
With hearing protection, it comes down to balancing attenuation and situational awareness—the ability to hear what’s going on in the workplace. Level-dependent hearing protectors can help employees who report difficulty detecting important sounds and communicating while wearing HPDs. For those who need to communicate by radio or phone, hearing protectors that connect to external two-way radios, those with built-in radios, and units that pair up to wireless devices make it possible to stay connected and protected at the same time.
In the Ear
The most widely used type of HPD. The soft foam is rolled into a tiny cylinder then inserted into the ear.
Soft foam tips with a flexible stem. No need to roll the foam tips before inserting into the ears
Washable earplugs with flexible, elastic flanges attached to a stem.
Plastic cups attached to an adjustable headband cover the ears to help block out sound. Soft, cushions seal against the side of the wearer’s head.
Soft foam or elastic tips held in place by a flexible band.
In some cases, level-dependent hearing protectors can help provide workers with hearing loss better situational awareness and help them work safely in noise while wearing hearing protection.
Some resources to learn more about hearing protection options for workers with hearing loss:
IMPORTANT NOTE: This information is based on selected current national requirements. Other State or local requirements may be different. Always consult User Instructions and follow local laws and regulations. This website contains an overview of general information and should not be relied upon to make specific decisions. Reading this information does not certify proficiency in safety and health. Information is current as of the date of publication, and requirements can change in the future. This information should not be relied upon in isolation, as the content is often accompanied by additional and/or clarifying information. All applicable laws and regulations must be followed.