workplace earplugs

Which Is the Right Earplug for Me?

There are so many different earplugs in the marketplace. How do you know which are the right earplugs for your workers?

Custom earplugs are made of various materials that fill the ear canal. Some are made using an impression material, which then is manufactured into the earplug and others instantly are created with the impression material curing into the earplug itself. Custom earplugs can be comfortable and might motivate workers to use them. However, even custom earplugs must be created and worn so that an acoustic seal is maintained within the ear canal.

Type of Hearing Protector Pros Cons
Foam, disposable earplug Comfortable for extended use
Corded and uncorded
Detectable models
Cooler in hot/humid environments
Can provide highest levels of attenuation
Multiple sizes available to fit different ear canals
Attenuation highly
dependent upon good fit
Hygiene issues in dirty environments
Multi-use earplug Comfortable for extended use
Corded and uncorded
Detectable models
Cooler in hot/humid environments
Multiple sizes and shapes available to fit different ear canals Variety of materials with different characteristics
Attenuation dependent upon good fit
Slightly more expensive
than single use
Must be cleaned
Push-in foam earplug Easy to insert
No roll
Attenuation dependent upon good fit
Slightly more expensive
Custom earplug Personal attachment
Active sound management
Can attach to radios and communication headsets
Lower attenuation (except with deep-insertion type)
Variability in attenuation
Variable extended-life benefit
Variable quality
Banded earplug Very convenient for intermittent noise
Readily available around
neck when not in use
Lower attenuation than most earplugs
Some noise transmission through band
Occlusion effect
Amplification
HPD
Communication
Situational awareness
Impulse noise management
Possible solution for hearing impaired workers
Training
Maintenance (batteries)
Costs $50 - $200 per unit
Uniform attenuation
HPD
More natural sounds
Lower attenuation ideal for moderate noise environments
Ideal for hearing-impaired workers
Available in earplugs or earmuffs
Lower attenuation than most earplugs
Slightly higher cost
Non-linear
HPD
Communication and situational
awareness in quiet environments
Protection from impulse noise and high noise levels
Higher cost than passive HPD
Control unit as additional PPE to wear
Appropriate for specific applications or environments
Intelligent
HPD
Communicate in high, changing noise
Increased situational awareness
Can integrate active hearing protection, ANR, fit testing, PSEM
Connect with radios
Compatible with other PPE
Higher cost than passive HPD
Control unit as additional PPE to wear
Appropriate for specific applications or environments (eg. intrinsically safe)

Attenuation

Flat attenuation – Some earplugs have filters that allow less attenuation or allow some frequencies to have lower attenuation. These earplugs help to balance the need to decrease the noise level but maintain the ability to hear. This type of hearing protection is helpful for employees with existing hearing loss and for any employee who is exposed to relatively low levels of hazardous noise (usually up to about 95 dB). 

Certain processes in the food industry and paper and pulp industry require that all personal protective devices have some metal component that is detectable. A few disposable and multi-use earplugs have this added feature.

Low attenuation – Earplugs don't always need to offer lots of attenuation. Many hazardous noise environments require only a slight amount of attenuation to protect the worker and over-protection might create other safety issues.  

Electronic – Earplugs can provide amplification as well as attenuation. These types of earplugs are designed to allow sounds that are very quiet to be amplified and also to provide protection when sounds reach a hazardous level.

Corded – Essentially all earplugs can be corded or uncorded.  The nature of the work, the work environment and personal preference can be factors in determining the use of cords. 

An "appropriate variety" of earplug options depends on the worker population, the environment, the tasks and the noise level. This article has discussed only earplugs; other options to meet the hearing protection needs of workers include earmuffs, banded hearing protection and intelligent hearing protectors.  The most important factor is that hearing protection must meet the needs of the noise-exposed worker.
 

Theresa Y. Schulz, Ph.D., (Lt. Col., retired, U.S. Air Force), is the hearing conservation manager for Honeywell Safety Products, a leading global provider of passive and intelligent hearing protection solutions. She has a B.S. in communication disorders, an M.A. in audiology in from the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. in hearing science from the Ohio State University. She has been a member of the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) for nearly 30 years and has served as its president. She is the president of the NHCA Foundation, and past chair of the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation (CAOHC), a certified member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a fellow in the American Academy of Audiology (AAA) and a member of the Air Force Audiology Association (AFAA). Contact Schulz by email at [email protected]. Learn more about Howard Leight at  http://www.howardleight.com.

TAGS: PPE
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