Insight

How to Choose the Right Construction Hearing Protector

Earplug and earmuff-style hearing protectors for construction professionals.

Construction hearing protectors are often required to keep you safe from dangerous noise levels and today’s Hearing Protection Devices (HPD) offer a lot of options to choose from: noise reduction ratings, ease of use, form factor, comfort, durability, and how easy they are to clean and disinfect.

Noise levels on a construction job site vary based on the task and the type of equipment in use. And since crews often work within shouting distance, the racket from nearby machinery adds to the sounds produced by your own tools and tasks. And all that noise will take a toll.

Here are the important things to consider when selecting your next safety solution.

DO YOU NEED A CONSTRUCTION HEARING PROTECTOR?

If you’ve been working around loud equipment for a while, you may feel that the noise they create is ‘normal’. However, your ears never get ‘used’ to loud noise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Hearing loss progresses as long as the exposure continues. Harmful effects might continue even after noise exposure has stopped.”

But suppose the noise you deal with isn’t constant. “I don’t hear it all the time, so it’s not as bad.” Unfortunately, even occasional exposure to loud noise during the day – when repeated day after day, week after week – can cause hearing damage and permanent hearing loss.

OSHA requires employers to have a hearing conversation program in place if workers are exposed to a time-weighted average noise level of 85 decibels or higher over an 8-hour work shift. To put that in perspective, normal conversation is about 60dB, and vehicles, power tools and heavy equipment routinely average 95-100dB. That’s well above the OSHA 85dB threshold.

HOW LOUD IS THE JOB SITE?

You May Have A Noise Problem If:

  • Noise is louder than heavy city traffic.
  • You have to raise your voice to talk to someone more than 3 feet away.
  • You hear a ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work.
  • You must increase the volume on your TV, phone or other media devices to the point that others complain.
  • You have difficulty hearing and understanding conversation when there are other sounds or many voices in the background.

The first step in deciding if you need to wear a hearing protector is assessing the level of noise you’re being exposed to. There are a few ways to go about this:

  • Walk around the site and listen to noise levels in areas where you work. Can you hold a conversation without shouting or moving closer to the other person?
  • Use an app to get an informal idea of how loud it is when you’re operating different types of equipment and at different places in the work zone. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s Sound Level Meter has one option.
  • Your employer may also be taking official measurements of sound levels using equipment designed for the job, such as level meters and noise dosimeters.

You May Have A Noise Problem If:

  • Noise is louder than heavy city traffic.
  • You have to raise your voice to talk to someone more than 3 feet away.
  • You hear a ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work.
  • You must increase the volume on your TV, phone or other media devices to the point that others complain.
  • You have difficulty hearing and understanding conversation when there are other sounds or many voices in the background.

COMPARING CONSTRUCTION HEARING PROTECTORS

There are two basic types of hearing protectors: in-ear or earplug style, and over-the-ear or earmuff style. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. But both are designed to reduce the amount of sound that reaches your ears.

Now that you know you need a construction hearing protector, here are some things to keep in mind when comparing choices.

Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)

If your job site’s noise level requires a reduction of 20 decibels for safety, an NRR rating of 20dB or higher on an HPD is high enough to provide the protection you need. If you experience occasional impulse noises that are louder, look for a higher NRR rating to cover those spikes.

“Doubling up” your protection

Wearing both earplugs and earmuffs together can provide an extra 5 decibels of noise reduction rating. There’s some math behind the calculations, but you don’t simply add the second hearing protector’s NRR rating to the first. NIOSH recommends that anyone whose time-weighted average noise exposure exceeds 100 decibels over an 8-hour shift wear both types of hearing protectors simultaneously.

FeatureEarmuffsEarplugs
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)Up to 31dBUp to 33dB
ComfortSome feel that over-the-ear style hearing protectors are more comfortable for long term use, and also provide more comfort in cooler environments.Small, more convenient to carry with you, and can be more comfortable if it’s hot or humid.
Ease of UseWorn over each ear and held in place by a headband. That simplicity provides a more consistent level of hearing protection, but they may be more difficult to wear properly when used with other protective equipment like safety glasses or face shields.Must be compressed and inserted into the ear canal where they expand and reduce sound. As a result, they take time to fit properly.
DurabilityWith care and maintenance, earmuffs can last for years. Inspect the seals daily to ensure they retain their shape and haven’t become brittle or hard. Watch for cracks or defects that may reduce their performance. If so, replace them immediately.Foam earplugs are designed to be used once and discarded.

With a 2-4 week lifespan, reusable or molded earplugs provide a custom fit.
HygieneCan be cleaned and disinfected using mild detergent or disinfecting wipes.Reusable earplugs should be cleaned regularly with mild soap and water. Make sure to allow them to dry thoroughly before reinserting.

Ultimately, the right construction hearing protector for you is the gear that you’ll wear consistently. If you compromise there, you’re likely to find yourself leaving them in the equipment shed or the truck, rather than wearing them when you need them most.

TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Hearing protection is critical for safety. But what about communication? Earplug and earmuff-style hearing protectors cut out most noise, including the voices of your crew, the sounds of nearby vehicles and the warning alarm of an overheating engine. Do you pull out your earplugs or pull off an earmuff to be able to hear? Now you’re right back where you started.

Sonetics specializes in combining hearing protection with the productivity benefits of wireless communication. To learn more, visit our Team Systems page.

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