Fact or Fiction: Hearing Protectors

Hearing Conservation Quiz

Fact or Fiction: Hearing Protectors

An earplug goes in your ear. An earmuff goes over your ear. Think that’s enough you need to know about hearing protectors? Think again! Let’s check your know-how with this quick test of fact and fiction about hearing protectors.

According to OSHA regulations, noise-exposed workers are allowed to select their own hearing protectors. TRUE…

...but from a choice of protectors with adequate attenuation. The actual wording from OSHA's Hearing Conservation Amendment (29 CFR 1910.95i3) states, "Employees shall be given the opportunity to select their hearing protectors from a variety of suitable hearing protectors provided by the employer." This is commonly interpreted to mean the employer should provide at least one type of earplug and at least one type of earmuff to noise-exposed workers. A good practice is to provide workers with at least one single-use and multiple-use earplug models, as well as a selection of earmuffs or banded earplugs. This accommodates worker comfort preference, fitting ability and job application.

Foam earplugs offer more protection from noise than earmuffs. TRUE…

...with one qualifier: properly fit roll-down foam earplugs offer more protection than the typical earmuff. Bigger is not necessarily better in terms of blocking noise in the ear; a well-fit earplug seals the ear canal from hazardous noise, and is less likely to allow “acoustical leaks” than an earmuff. This is evident in the higher attenuation values of foam earplugs. But to achieve that good fit, a user must follow basic rules for proper insertion:


Earplugs Good Poor Fit

1) Roll the earplug into a small crease-free cylinder


2) Reach over the head to pull up and back on the ear to straighten the ear canal

3) Insert the earplug deeply

In fact, a poorly fit foam earplug actually offers little or no protection from noise.

The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of a hearing protector should be cut in half to estimate how much protection workers will achieve in the real world. FALSE!

This common misconception has even led some safety managers to assume it is an OSHA requirement to cut the NRR in half in determining the effectiveness of a hearing protector in an existing Hearing Conservation Program. The truth is, field studies show that many workers achieve the rated attenuation, particularly when they receive one-on-one training in proper fit of the hearing protector. Needless de-rating of hearing protectors can result in overprotection—workers will be annoyed by not hearing what they need to hear, and find ways to compromise their use of hearing protectors.

Wearing an earmuff simultaneously over an earplug doubles the noise attenuation. FALSE!

There is a ceiling effect that limits the amount of hearing protection we can achieve with dual protection (wearing an earplug and earmuff). Once we reach that limit, adding more protection offers no additional benefit. Wearing an earmuff over a well-fit foam earplug only adds about 3-5 dB of additional attenuation;  we don't get to simply add the NRR values of both protectors. Still, using double protection provides the maximum possible attenuation in extreme noise environments.

Earmuffs cannot be worn over safety eyewear without causing a significant decline in attenuation. FALSE!

The determining factor is the width of the eyeglass frame where it meets the earmuff cushion. Thin frames (thickness of 2 mm or less) cause very little obstruction to the seal, resulting in no measurable change in attenuation of the earmuff. Thick frames (thickness of 6 mm or more, typically seen on safety glasses with adjustable sidebars) can reduce attenuation by 5-8 decibels. If your workers must wear earmuffs over safety glasses, choose thin frames for best attenuation.

All foam earplugs must be rolled down first to be properly inserted. FALSE!

There are several models of no-roll foam earplugs now available. A no-roll earplug makes insertion easier, and improves hygiene in dirty work environments since the hands do not touch the part of the earplug inserted into the ear canal. Check the package to see if your foam earplug is marked as a "no-roll" model.

In hazardous noise, an AM/FM radio earmuff can still be safely worn without compromising hearing. TRUE!

A few radio earmuffs models incorporate a built-in limiting circuit: no matter how high the volume control, the maximum output of the radio will not exceed a set decibel limit. For example, Howard Leight’s radio earmuff volume does not exceed 82 dB. When worn in workplace noise levels even up to 100 dB, the attenuation of the earmuff and the limiting circuit of the radio combine to prevent noise exposures from exceeding 85 dB. In a high-noise job that is also repetitive or monotonous, a radio earmuff can add significantly to worker satisfaction and enjoyment, without sacrificing hearing protection.

It's not safe to put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. FALSE!

You may have heard it from mom, but she may have had hearing loss! It is true we should not try to clean inside our own ears by inserting cotton swabs, erasers, pen caps, paper clips or the like. But when it comes to protection from hazardous noise, earplugs are designed to be a safe distance from the sensitive eardrum, even when deeply inserted. Mom would be proud of you for protecting your hearing!