6 Things to Consider When Choosing the Best Hearing Protection for Your Needs

Workplaces with dangerous noise levels can do permanent damage to your hearing. Find out how to choose the best hearing protection for your worksite with these 6 questions.

October 20, 2022

Whether it’s your job or your hobby, dangerous noise levels are no joke. While most workplaces don’t exceed the OSHA threshold for safe noise levels, jobs that do have continuous exposure to excessive noise could cause permanent damage. No matter where you encounter dangerous noise levels, it’s important to have the best hearing protection for your situation.

National Protect Your Hearing Month

October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, a time to draw attention to environmentally caused hearing loss, as well as the best ways to prevent it. Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss, with over 200,000 diagnoses annually. With the clear possibility of this risk, protecting your hearing is incredibly important. But how do you know what the best hearing protection for your workplace or hobby actually is?

Why Hearing Protection is Critical

Whether it’s your job or your hobby, dangerous noise levels are no joke. While most workplaces don’t exceed the OSHA threshold for safe noise levels, jobs that do have continuous exposure to excessive noise could cause permanent damage. And with sensorineural hearing loss being the most common type of hearing loss, protecting your hearing is incredibly important.

In fact, this type of hearing loss is irreversible, and proper protection is the only way to prevent it from happening. It’s even a threat around the home. Lawnmowers, snowblowers, and even power tools can make dangerous amounts of noise. With noise levels as high as 105 decibles for many power tools, even a DIY project could cause hearing loss.

That’s why it’s crucial to ensure you have the proper hearing protective gear for your particular situation. Without a proper seal over the outer ear or in the ear canal, noise levels above the safe threshold can still do a lot of damage.

What’s the Best Hearing Protection for Your Needs?

As you start to shop around for hearing protection, you’ll find plenty of options and plenty of features to choose from. But how do you know what’s best for you? Depending on your need, there are some products that will work better than others. Take these 6 areas into consideration when you choose the best hearing protection for your workplace or recreational activities.

Noise Reduction

The OSHA recommended exposure limit is 85dBA. Anything above this level can cause hearing loss over sustained exposure. When you choose the best hearing protection for your work or recreation needs, aim for a reduced noise level of around 75 to 85dBA.

In most industrial workplaces, noise levels can remain around 95dBA, so you should look for hearing protection that offers around a 15dBA noise reduction rating (NRR). The best way to make sure you’re getting the right amount of noise reduction is to do fit testing. You can also do a self test by cupping your hands over your ears and counting out loud. When you uncup your hands, your voice should be about the same volume as when your hands are cupped.

Keep in mind, though, that too much noise reduction could pose a danger as well. If you can’t hear what’s going on around you, you may not hear sounds that signal dangerous situations.

Type of Worksite Noise or Recreation

The best hearing protection option for you also depends on the type of noise exposure you’re likely going to experience. If the workplace volume is constant, you may want something that can be placed once and left in comfortably all day. But if you will be around impulsive noise sources, like nail guns or weapon discharges, it’s best to choose a device that you can place and remove quickly.

There are alternatives to flat attenuation devices that allow sound to enter naturally below a particular threshold. For firing ranges and worksites where communication may be needed between impulsive or intermittent noise levels above the 85dbA level, you should consider level-dependent ear muffs or ear plugs.

Climate and Temperature

Many hearing protection options lose their comfort, and even sometimes their ability to protect your hearing, if temperatures are too extreme. Heat and humidity can make continuous use uncomfortable, especially over the course of several hours. Very cold temperatures also change how foam responds, which may cause gaps in the seal around the ear canal. In these cases, custom pieces may end up being your best hearing protection option.

Communication Needs

If your job requires continuous communication, there are now hearing protection options that incorporate linked communication so that you and your fellow team members can talk without risking your hearing. Keeping a stable line of communication is important in many job sites, and this technology can provide both safety and convenience.

Special Features

For long hours, music can be an important motivator. Bluetooth technology allows you to use hearing protection without sacrificing your playlists. The addition of a flexible neck band for ear plugs makes them more convenient in intermittent noise environments where the hearing protection may need to be placed and removed repeatedly. The fit of the headphones around PPE is also an important factor, and many options accommodate headwear and eye protection.

Comfort and Convenience

While the true purpose of hearing protection is noise reduction, the most important qualities for choosing the best hearing protection for your needs are simply the comfort and convenience of the protectors. If your hearing protection is painful, frustrating, or hard to place, you’ll be less likely to use it, as well as less likely to use it correctly.

Types of Hearing Protection

With these qualities in mind, choosing the best hearing protection often comes down to the type of device you want. There are many options on the market today, ranging from simple replaceable devices all the way to completely custom hearing protection. From cost to convenience, you can find almost anything to fit your needs.

Expandable Foam Ear Plugs

Expandable foam ear plugs are by far the least expensive option for hearing protection. To wear them, you compress the foam so that the ear plug fits entirely into the ear canal, leaving just the flange at the end of the ear plug visible. As the foam expands back to its original form, it creates a seal inside the ear canal to provide noise reduction.

If you’re in an environment where you’ll experience continuous noise levels above the 85dBA mark, expandable foam ear plugs work well. They are much less expensive, so they can be replaced after each use without breaking the bank. These ear plugs are also better for people who need PPE that would otherwise interfere with over-the-ear hearing protection.

However, if your workplace keeps your hands dirty or greasy, it’s hard to use these ear plugs since you have to roll and compress them with your fingers. They also tend to be inconvenient in environments where you need to remove and replace your hearing protection frequently.

Pre-Molded Reusable Ear Plugs

Instead of disposable plugs that require compressing to use, pre-molded reusable ear plugs offer a bit more convenience for repeated placement. These types of ear plugs are typically made of silicone, and they come in multiple sizes since they need to be fit properly to seal the ear canal. There are several different shapes and styles as well, offering different options to accommodate multiple ear canal shapes and sizes.

The biggest downfall of these ear plugs is that you’ll need to try multiple different styles and sizes to get the proper seal for noise reduction. While they may be the best hearing protection for your situation, they take a bit of work to get right.

Canal Caps and Semi-Insert Plugs

For intermittent noise environments, canal caps (also called semi-insert plugs) may be the best noise protection for your needs. These plugs do not insert completely into the ear canal, but instead utilize a rigid head band to create enough pressure to seal the canal with the silicone tips. They are less likely to interfere with PPE, and they can be taken off and placed again quickly and efficiently.

But the pressure from these plugs may be uncomfortable for some. The rigid headband flexes inward, so continuous use for several hours may be unpleasant. They may also interfere with some helmets or hardhats if they can’t be worn under the chin or behind the neck.

Ear Muffs

Ear muffs completely cover the outer ear, creating a seal around the ear with soft foam pads. They are reliable, easy to place, and last for a long time with proper care. They cause less irritation for the ear canal, since they don’t contact the canal directly.

They can be uncomfortable in hot and humid environments, though, and in extreme cold they lose their effectiveness because the foam cushions lose their flexibility. These over-the-ear hearing protectors also tend to cause interference with helmets and PPE. While some ear muffs are designed to be worn with helmets, they are not always compatible with every style of head protection.

The Benefits of Custom Hearing Protection

Off-the-shelf hearing protection devices can cover many of the needs you may have, but the best hearing protection you could get in every case is a set of custom hearing protection devices. There are serious benefits to having a custom-molded solution, and in certain cases, they may be the only option that offers reliable noise reduction.

Custom hearing protection offers a guaranteed seal every time, as well as durable materials that outlast most off-the-shelf alternatives. It’s also possible to design communication systems, high fidelity sound, and Bluetooth devices with custom moldings to meet the needs of special circumstances. This more durable and better fitting alternative is the safest and most cost-effective way to make sure your hearing is fully protected.

At Sioux Falls Audiology Associates, we offer custom hearing protection for any need, whether it’s for music performances, shooting sports, or swimming. We also offer Soundgear Phantoms for high-fidelity Bluetooth connectivity with a perfect fit for the best custom hearing protection possible. Schedule a consultation today to get started!

Written by
Reviewed by
Mandy Rounseville-Norgaard Au.D.
Read full bio

Dr. Norgaard has over 15 years of experience in practicing audiology, and a lifetime of experience wearing hearing aids. Dr. Norgaard was born with significant hearing loss in both ears and has worn hearing devices since the age of 3.

Recently from our blog