We are often asked, “What is the best type of hearing protector?” Our answer is always, “The one that gets worn!”

When selecting hearing protection, people usually focus on the product’s Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), presuming that the one with the highest rating is the best choice. We would suggest that this is not the best approach because no matter how much noise reduction they offer, if they’re not comfortable, they’re not likely to be worn properly or even worse, at all.

Top 5 things you need to know when selecting hearing protectors:

A hearing protector should only provide the appropriate amount of noise reduction for the environment in which it will be used. Any less and it won’t do its job. Any more and you may get complaints such as “I can’t hear anything with these on!” The goal is to get the noise exposure down to a safe level – around 80dB (decibels).

2. SELECT THE RIGHT NOISE REDUCTION RATING (NRR) Hearing protectors come with an NRR rating that indicates how many decibels of noise reduction they provide. An NRR20 should reduce the noise by 20dB, an NRR30 should reduce it by 30dB, and so on. The problem is that NRR ratings are established under ideal laboratory conditions. In the real world people don’t always get a proper fit. Research shows the average NRR rating for a group of employees is as follows:
  • Earplugs: Around 40-50%
  • Ear muffs: Around 60-70%
  • Custom-fitted earplugs: 80-90% or more
When selecting hearing protection, keep this in mind and shop accordingly. If necessary, you can always double-up by wearing ear muffs over top of earplugs. 3. FOCUS ON FIT & COMFORT Once you’ve established the necessary NRR rating, focus on the models that offer the highest comfort level. 4. OFFER CHOICES You’ll never find a group of people that all agree on what’s comfortable, so offer a choice of at least three types of earplugs and two types of ear muffs. There is no right or wrong (better or worse) choice between plugs & muffs. They’re both available in ratings from NRR10 to NRR34 and, if worn properly, work equally well. They both have their advantages and disadvantages:

  • Ear plugs are small, convenient, and inexpensive, but they can also be hard to insert properly, uncomfortable, easily lost, needing good hygiene, and be a source of litter. It can also be difficult for a supervisor to tell if they’re being worn properly.
  • Ear muffs are easier to fit properly, less likely to get misplaced and last much longer. It’s also easier to see if they’re being worn properly. But they’re also more costly, heavier & less portable, may have fitting issues with glasses, hair & headwear, and they may be uncomfortable in hot & humid conditions.
  • Custom-fitted earplugs. Since the best hearing protector is the one that’s both comfortable and has just the right amount of noise reduction, we’re strong advocates of custom fitted, calibrated earplugs. There’s a growing body of research indicating that properly fitted custom plugs perform notably better on average than off-the-shelf models. They typically last for 3 to 5 years, so they can actually be cheaper and more cost-effective in the long run than using off-the-shelf products, including the throw-away foam earplugs. And like custom eyewear, they are a personalized safety product, so workers tend to take them more seriously and treat them with more care.
5. ALLOW TIME TO GET USED TO THEM If you are introducing hearing protection to people that have never worn them before, be sure to provide them with proper training on the use and care of the protectors and let them “ease” into wearing them. For example, allow wearing the protectors for 2 hours a day for a week, extend to 4 hours for a week, then 6 hours and so on. By the end of the month, they’ll be comfortable wearing them for the full shift.

Increase your chances of selecting hearing protectors that get worn

If you keep these 5 tips in mind the next time you’re in the market for new hearing protectors, you will increase the chances of protecting your most valuable resource – your people. For more information about Hearing Protectors and Hearing Testing, contact us or download our free guide on Workplace Hearing Conservation.