The amount of noise we experience on a daily basis depends on where we live and what we do, but there’s no question that modern life is filled with potentially harmful sound levels. One of the best things we can do to limit our exposure to extreme noise is to limit the volume on our personal listening devices, which have gotten louder even than the Sony Walkman, the portable cassette player from the 1980s that had the hearing health community up in arms about the damage it can do to our ears at maximum volume.
If you work in an area with dangerous noise levels, frequently attend musical concerts, play an instrument yourself or engage in other loud activities, you’ll need to consider your options for hearing protection. But where do you begin?
Types of Hearing Protection
Let’s consider four main types of hearing protection:
- Disposable earplugs
- Reusable earplugs
- Custom-fit earplugs
Disposable earplugs are usually made of foam. You squeeze them so they fit into your ear canal, insert them, and allow a moment for them to expand. The interrupted force of their expansion holds them in place in your ear canal.
While they may feel uncomfortable at first, one gets used to them very quickly. While they do a good job of attenuating sound, there are a number of drawbacks to using them.
Because they’re disposable, you need to have a fresh set every time you use them. They should never be reused; the chemicals that give them their squishability will off-gas after a few squeezes and make them ineffective. If you’re using earplugs for personal use in various locations, this means you need to carry a number of sets with you. And the minimum cost you’ll find them for is about $0.15 per set, which can add up over time if you’re using them on a regular basis.
They also attenuate high frequencies much more than lower frequencies. This upset of the normal frequency spectrum that we hear may be fine for certain activities, but if you’re listening to music it will not sound as brilliant.
Reusable earplugs will cost between a few dollars and $30 per pair. They generally provide better sound than disposable earplugs, but the normal experience of the frequency spectrum is still not fully maintained. Many models come with a carrying case, so you can easily bring them with you wherever you go. If you happen to encounter a situation where sound levels are high, you can pop them in easily.
Reusables generally have a moderate amount of attenuation that is well-suited to most situations. You’ll need to clean them periodically but this is not a complicated process: simply wipe them down with a wet cloth and allow them to dry. While some manufacturers promise that they attenuate all frequencies evenly, the reality is that they don’t. While the actual attenuators placed inside them might do that, the articulation of the form allows much more low frequency to pass through the carrier materials than high.
Custom-fit earplugs are great for musicians or anyone who needs regular sound level attenuation. These require that a mold be taken off your ear, and then a (usually) silicone plug is created for your specific ear shape. This plug can then be fitted with attenuators with degrees ranging from just enough to get a lawnmower into a safe listening range, to safe levels on a shooting range.
Custom-fit earplugs will preserve the integrity of the frequency range, making them especially valuable for musicians or avid concert-goers. Their biggest downside is their higher cost, but the cost is well-worth it. Custom-fit earplugs have gained popularity in manufacturing as well. While their average cost of $150 per pair seems high, this is actually less than would be spent in a year for an individual worker to wear disposables.
Earmuffs work by forming a seal around the whole ear. Their main advantage is their ease of fitting and removal, if you need to put them on and take them off a lot during use. Most people find them less comfortable than earplugs, though some prefer them especially in cold weather.
Earmuffs can incorporate headphone and microphone technology to facilitate communication while attenuating outside sounds. While this system is an additional investment, it is sometimes the best course.
One problem with earmuffs is that their effectiveness is significantly reduced if you are also wearing glasses, especially safety glasses with their thick temple pieces. Any “leak” in the surroundings significantly reduces their attenuation.
With most of us spending time in noisy environments at least once in a while, it is reasonable to expect that we will all wear ear protection at least some of the time. Hopefully the descriptions above will help you make a decision about what type works best for you. To learn more about hearing protection and our hearing health services, contact us today.