If you’re exposed to unavoidable noise at work or home you may be wondering what hearing protection will help reduce the sound reaching your ears while feeling comfortable and easy to use.
Equipment that can protect your hearing
Ear protectors – earplugs, earmuffs and canal caps – protect your ears from loud noise by reducing the level of sound reaching your ears. If you’re exposed to unavoidable noise, you should use earplugs or earmuffs.
The term used to describe the extent to which ear protectors reduce sound is attenuation. Attenuation is measured in decibels (dB) or a single simplified noise-level reduction (SNR) figure. For example, most industry-standard earplugs carry an SNR of between 25 and 32dB.
When you should use hearing protection
You need to use hearing protection when you are exposed to noise:
- at work
- when you listen to music
- if you are involved in noisy sports or hobbies, such as motor sports and events, woodworking, and gun sports.
How ear protectors work
The ear protectors you choose should provide enough attenuation to protect your hearing. Usually, the packaging will show the level of attenuation that they provide for different frequencies.
Most give greater protection at potentially damaging higher frequencies (4-8kHz). But remember that in real situations, the attenuation is probably less than stated, as they’ll have been tested in ideal circumstances using brand-new protectors that fit well.
How comfortable are ear protectors?
Earplugs are probably best for long-term use, but if noise levels are high, you’ll need to wear high-attenuation earmuffs. Earmuffs and canal caps are easier to put on and take off, so are more convenient if you’re exposed to noise now and again. For very high noise levels, earmuffs and earplugs can be worn together. This usually provides an extra 10 to 15dB protection than if either is used alone.
Deciding what type of earplugs to choose
To make sure earplugs give you enough protection, choose ones with an SNR figure of at least 20dB. Make sure that the earplugs are designed for hearing protection. Many earplugs sold by pharmacies and sports shops are designed for swimming, or to reduce irritating background noise, and don’t protect effectively against damaging levels of noise.
Disposable earplugs should be soft and fit comfortably in your ear. They’re usually made of foam, mineral wadding, or soft silicone. Most disposable earplugs need to be rolled between your fingers, inserted into the ear and held in place until they expand to fill and seal the ear canal. Ordinary cotton wool isn’t recommended for this purpose.
Reusable earplugs are made from foam, soft plastic, or rubber. They can be washed and used again. Pre-moulded, re-usable earplugs are very hardwearing and don’t need to be rolled to fit in your ear. But they may not fit as snugly as custom-made earplugs and are unlikely to give quite as much protection.
Earplugs for the catering industry
If you work in the catering industry, you can get earplugs that can be detected using a metal detector if they fall into food.
Earplugs can also be custom-made to give a better fit in your ear canal. They tend to be expensive, but, with the better fit they should attenuate noise more effectively and be more comfortable. They may last for several years and so may be cheaper than disposable earplugs for regular, long-term use.
Musicians’ earplugs have acoustic filters to reduce noise at specific pitches by required amounts, so music is heard at normal but safe levels. This means that the earplugs protect from the damaging effects of loud sounds, but preserve the sound quality. For more information about music and noise levels, contact the Musicians’ Union or the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine.
You can get earplugs that protect from sudden explosive noises such as gunshots. These allow normal hearing at non-harmful levels, but attenuate all high-intensity sounds to a safe level. Some are electronic, while others contain special types of materials or filters.
Earmuffs, or ear defenders, look like large headphones. Hard cups fit over your ear and are sealed to your head with soft cushions on their rims. Standard models provide a similar degree of protection to standard earplugs but you can get earmuffs that give higher levels of attenuation. Some earmuffs are designed to provide similar attenuation at all frequencies, allowing you to hear speech and alarms more clearly.
You can also get earmuffs with folding headbands, which can be carried around or stored more easily, and earmuffs with neckbands, which can be worn with face shields or helmets. It’s also possible to get earmuffs that attach to a helmet, rather than a headband. Some earmuffs are only activated when loud noise is present. These are usually electronic and act in a similar way to shooters’ earplugs. Earmuffs are also available with built-in radio or audio systems for communication.
Canal caps are attached to a head-band or chin-band, which can be carried round your neck and placed onto your ears when you need them. Canal caps are useful for noise that comes and goes.