This article on ear plugs and ear muffs is from our archives. Was it helpful? Let us know in the comments section!
Ear plugs and ear muffs can prevent permanent hearing loss in noisy environments. Your employer must test the noise levels in your workplace to see if they equal or exceed limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). If they do, then your employer has to provide you with hearing protection that will reduce them below OSHA limits.
Noise and Hearing Loss
Repeated long-term exposure to loud noise can damage the nerves in your ears responsible for detecting sound. This kind of damage is permanent and can’t be fixed with hearing aids or even surgery. Loud noise can also affect your job performance, health, and even safety, because it can interfere with your ability to communicate with co-workers, induce anxiety and irritability, increase blood pressure, and just generally stress you out.
If you experience any of the following, then it may be too loud for you at your job, and you may need ear plugs or ear muffs.
- You have to shout to talk to a co-worker at arms-length.
- You experience temporary hearing loss after work.
- You hear ringing or humming in your ears after work.
Hearing loss can have other causes besides noise, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), including age and medical conditions like ear infections and impacted ear wax. No matter what’s causing your hearing loss, though, you should consult an otologist (ear doctor) or otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), who will help you manage and/or restore your hearing.
Your Employer’s Responsibilities
Sound Levels for Typical Sounds, Courtesy of OSHA
Use this chart to help you determine if you need ear plugs or ear muffs
OSHA measures workplace noise in A-weighted decibels (dBA), a scale that attempts to match the human ear’s sensitivity to different frequencies of sound. See the chart at left, provided by OSHA, to see the dBA levels of different noise sources.
According to OSHA, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for noise is a time weighted average of 85 dBA over an eight-hour workday for manufacturing and service employees and 90 dBA for construction workers. You can be exposed to higher noise levels than this, but every 5 dBA increase in noise halves your permissible exposure time. For example, a construction worker can be exposed to 90 dBA of noise for up to eight hours a day, but can be exposed to 95 dBA for only four hours a day and 100 dBA for only two hours a day.
If you and your co-workers are exposed to noise equal to or greater than OSHA’s PEL, then your employer has to implement a Hearing Conservation Program. This program includes:
- Monitoring noise levels, especially when noise levels in your workplace change.
- Giving you a free audiogram (hearing test) within one year of being exposed to workplace noise and free audiograms every year after that.
- Maintaining records of your audiograms as long as you work for your employer.
- Providing you with hearing protection like ear plugs and ear muffs, especially if your audiograms reveal hearing loss or a “standard threshold shift” of 10 decibels at 2,000, 3,000 and 4,000 hertz.
Hearing protection like ear muffs and ear plugs is not an ideal solution for workplace noise, according to OSHA. However, your employer has to provide you with ear plugs or ear muffs if other measures (like using quieter equipment, placing noise sources behind barriers or taking breaks in quiet rooms) fail to reduce your noise exposure below OSHA’s PEL or if your audiograms show that you suffer from hearing loss.
According to OSHA, your employer must provide you with a choice of at least one kind of ear plugs and one kind of ear muffs. Stuffing plain cotton in your ears won’t cut it. Whatever kind of hearing protection you choose, though, it has to be comfortable and provide you with sufficient protection against hearing loss. Your employer then has to train you in its use, and you have to wear it while on the job.
Ear plugs and ear muffs must reduce noise levels below OSHA’s PEL. Your employer will probably use the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of your ear plugs or ear muffs, adjusted for your workplace, to determine this. If this adjusted NRR reduces your noise exposure below permitted levels, then your ear muffs or ear plugs are acceptable for your job.
In addition, your employer must re-evaluate your hearing protection whenever the noise levels at your workplace change. This re-evaluation could lead to your ear muffs of ear plugs being deemed inadequate.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Hearing Protection
According to the AAO-HNS, ear plugs and ear muffs don’t just protect your hearing. They also do the same thing for your ears that sunglasses do for your eyes – that is, they reduce the volume of loud noises and allow you to understand speech better. As a result, ear plugs and ear muffs can increase both your safety and job performance.
They do have drawbacks, though. According to the AAO-HNS, ear plugs and ear muffs can slightly reduce your ability to understand speech if your hearing is damaged or if you already have trouble understanding speech. It’s important to wear hearing protection to prevent further loss of hearing and speech comprehension, but this is still something to keep in mind.
You may be concerned that ear muffs and ear plugs will reduce your ability to hear signs of danger, such as warnings from co-workers or the noises made by malfunctioning equipment. According to the AAO-HNS, you shouldn’t worry. Most people adjust to their ear plugs or ear muffs and can still hear these sounds while wearing them.
Desert Diamond Industries carries a large selection of ear plugs and other safety equipment.
“Hearing Conservation.” Hearing Conservation. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3074/osha3074.html>.
“Hearing protection. – 1926.101.” Hearing protection. – 1926.101. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=10664>.
“Noise and Hearing Protection.” Noise and Hearing Protection. The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/hearingProtection.cfm>.
“Occupational Noise Exposure. – 1926.52.” Occupational Noise Exposure. – 1926.52. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=10625>.
“Safety and Health Topics | Occupational Noise Exposure.” Safety and Health Topics | Occupational Noise Exposure. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/noisehearingconservation/index.html>.