SAFETY SOLUTIONS: Your Hearing: Keep it for a Lifetime
Every year, approximately 30 million people in the
United States are occupationally exposed to hazardous
noise. Most of us go through life taking our
senses for granted. Like touching, tasting, smelling and
seeing; hearing is something we do automatically, without
giving it much thought. But when something goes wrong
with any of our senses, including our hearing, we expect
that medical science has a miracle to offer. Unfortunately,
medicine offers only moderate improvement for people
with hearing loss. Hearing loss cannot be restored for
most people. Many people suffer some degree of hearing
loss. Farmers, construction workers, people exposed to
constant loud noise on the job, home or through their
hobbies (even fans of loud music), have at least one thing
in common; they are at risk of permanent hearing loss.
Let’s look at hearing loss and how it can be prevented.
Exposure to normal noise levels doesn’t cause hearing
loss. Hearing loss occurs because of overexposure to high
noise levels. Noise is measured in units called “decibels.”
The higher the decibel, the louder the noise. To help you
see the difference in the decibel scale, look at these examples
of various noise levels:
In the workplace, hearing protection
must be used to reduce noise
exposure for any one who is generally
exposed to 90 decibels or
more over the course of their workday.
Hearing protection may be
used at lower levels, particularly for
people who are very close to the
90 decibel exposure level. Sounds
above 120 decibels can cause
hearing damage after only a brief
exposure and should be avoided
unless hearing protection is worn.
- 20 decibels - soft whisper
- 30 decibels - leaves rustling, very soft music
- 60 decibels - normal speech, background music
- 85 decibels - heavy machinery with soundproof cab
- 90 decibels - lawnmower, shop
- 100 decibels - heavy machinery
without soundproof cab,
- 115 decibels - loud music, sand
- 140 decibels - jet engine, shotgun
Speaking of hearing protection,
you’ve probably seen lots of different
types. Keep in mind that not
every type of hearing protection is good for every type of
noise. Disposable foam earplugs may be fine for some
noise exposure. Earmuff-type protection may be suitable
Expandable Foam Plugs
These plugs are made of a formable material designed
to expand and conform to the shape of each person’s ear
canal. Roll the expandable plugs into a thin, crease-free
cylinder. The final result should be a smooth tube thin
enough so that about half the length will fit easily into
your ear canal. Some individuals, especially women with
small ear canals, have difficulty rolling typical plugs small
enough to make them fit. A few manufacturers now offer
a small size expandable plug.
Pre-Molded, Reusable Plugs
Pre-molded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber
and are manufactured as either “one-size-fits-most” or
are available in several sizes. Many pre-molded plugs are
available in sizes for small, medium or large ear canals.
A critical tip about pre-molded plugs is that a person
may need a different size plug for each ear. The plugs
should seal the ear canal without being uncomfortable.
This takes trial and error of the various sizes. Directions
for fitting each model of pre-molded plug may differ slightly
depending on how many flanges they have and how the
tip is shaped. Insert this type of plug by reaching over your
head with one hand to pull up on your ear. Then use your
other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion
until you have sealed the ear canal.
Advantages of pre-molded plugs are that they are relatively
inexpensive, reusable, washable, convenient to
carry, and come in a variety of sizes. Nearly everyone can
find a plug that will be comfortable and effective. In dirty
or dusty environments, you don’t need to handle or roll
Canal caps often resemble earplugs on a flexible plastic
or metal band. The earplug tips of a canal cap may be a
formable or pre-molded material. Some have headbands
that can be worn over the head, behind the neck or under
the chin. Newer models have jointed bands increasing the
ability to properly seal the earplug.
The main advantage canal caps offer is convenience.
When it’s quiet, employees can leave the band hanging
around their necks. They can quickly insert the plug tips
when hazardous noise starts again. Some people find the
pressure from the bands uncomfortable. Not all canal
caps have tips that adequately block all types of noise.
Generally, the canal caps tips that resemble stand-alone
earplugs seem to block the most noise.
Earmuffs come in many models designed to fit most
people. They work to block out noise by completely covering
the outer ear. Muffs can be “low profile” with small ear
cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme
noise. Some muffs also include electronic components to
help users communicate or to block impulsive noises.
Workers who have heavy beards or sideburns or who
wear glasses may find it difficult to get good protection
from earmuffs. The hair and the temples of the glasses
break the seal that the earmuff cushions make around the
ear. For these workers, earplugs are best. Other potential
drawbacks of earmuffs are that some people feel they can
be hot and heavy in some environments.
Because many people like the comfort of foam plugs,
but don’t want to roll them in dirty environments, a plug
is now available that is essentially a foam tip on a stem.
You insert this plug much like a pre-molded plug without
rolling the foam.
Scientists are developing earmuffs using high-tech materials
to reduce weight and bulk, but still effectively block
noise. On the horizon may be earplugs with built in twoway
Still, the best hearing protector is the one that is comfortable
and convenient and that you will wear every time
you are in an environment with hazardous noise.
It is the employer’s responsibility to assess noise exposures
and provide appropriate hearing protection as needed
for everyone in the workplace.
It is the worker’s responsibility to use the protection
consistently and correctly. Hearing protection is no use if
it’s not worn.
Keep in mind that equipment operators aren’t the only
ones who may need protection. Other people who work
nearby may be exposed to too much noise, too. If you
work in a noisy area-even if you’re not the one making the
noise, be aware of the hazard and use protection.
Another thing that might cause unnecessary noise exposure
is poorly-maintained equipment. Keeping equipment
properly lubricated and in good condition helps keep
down the noise. If you become aware of noisy equipment
that hasn’t been noisy before, report the condition so
proper hearing protection can be provided until necessary
repairs are made.
Away from the workplace hearing protection is your
total responsibility. Don’t risk your hearing for the sake of
a hobby. Keep the music at a reasonable level. It may be
hard to admit, but if other people tell you your stereo is
too loud, it probably is! If you ride a motorcycle or another
noisy vehicle, protect your hearing. In your workshop,
use hearing protection that’s appropriate to protect
against the noise.
Think of those sounds you take for granted and imagine
life without them. Don’t let unnecessary exposure to noise
take away the sounds of your everyday life. You can do
something to help protect your hearing. Take the time to
know what protection to use and use it faithfully. Your
hearing can last a lifetime with a few common-sense precautions.
For more information, click on the Author Biography link at the top of this page.