Hearing Protection – don’t risk over-protection

“I would like a hearing protector that blocks out all noise”

Why over-protection is just as bad as under-protection, or even worse!

If we got a dollar for every-time a client asks us: “Can I get the hearing protection that blocks out all sound?”, we would be very rich!

If clients call us, with a question to provide them with a HPD (Hearing Protection Device) that reduces the most sound in a workplace or similar environment, we usually advise against it. Instead we try to find out what the best or the optimal hearing protection is for the clients’ specific situation. This is more often than not, not the earbud that has the highest decibel rating.

Let us explain why...

Hearing Protection – Can you have too much?

We are generally aware that when it comes to protecting your hearing, under-protection is bad for you and can lead to hearing damage, because of being overexposed to noise. Not many people are aware though that over-protection is just as bad or even worse.

Especially in an industrial workplace environment, situational awareness is important. Employees need to be able to communicate effectively with each other. Safety and other signs should not be missed due to the fact that people can’t hear them.

The “more is always better”approach can lead to over-protection, which creates safety hazards, not being able to communicate effectively and the inability to hear safety signs. 

When wearing too much hearing protection employees may become distanced from their environment. This may give them the tendency to remove their hearing protection, leading to safety risks, and damage to their hearing.

Exposure to noise is often measured over an 8-hour period. It is better to protect your hearing at a lower level for those 8 (working) hours than for people to remove their protectors because they can’t hear and are fully exposed to loud noises when they do so. Even short periods of time can, in the case of no protection at all,  lead to hearing loss.

Think about it like wearing sunglasses indoors; it’s more protection than what is needed and may overly diminish the sense. Too much hearing protection can also lead to isolation and, as a consequence, people who are less happy in their job.

Focussing on obtaining the best hearing protection for a specific person in a specific situation or environment  should be the goal.

Hearing protection – Noise levels

Hearing protection should bring noise levels to an acceptable level, which is defined in Australia and New Zealand as 85dB. Noises above this level can permanently damage hearing.

Custom hearing protection can prevent hearing damage from happening. 

On the other hand, bringing noise levels significantly below this acceptable level, say out of the 70-85dB range, with hearing protection, is not safe either. Over protection occurs when sound levels are reduced so far below 85dB that communication cannot properly take place.

Solid hearing protection

There are several solid custom made hearing protectors on the market that fully close off the ear, for some purposes like swimming and sleeping those might be the best solution.

Many people have difficulty sleeping due either to their snoring partner, unnatural work patterns or because of living in a noisy environment.

This can have very real consequences for your long term well-being. Solid custom sleep plugs reduce noise like snoring and traffic noise substantially while you are still able to hear the alarm clock and smoke alarm go off.

Solid earplugs and/or hearing protection are not normally advisable in the (industrial) working environment.

Ear plugs that block all sound?

Even solid earplugs don’t block out all sounds. This is not possible with any hearing protector, even custom made ones – as sound not only travels through the ear canal but also travels through the bone structure of your head.

How to resolve the conflict of workers who need to wear hearing protection but still need to hear certain sounds?

Solid ear plugs are not recommended when more situational awareness is required, for those situations high quality filtered earplugs are the best way to go. These filters allow for natural hearing. Speech is still clear while protecting the ears at the same time.

High fidelity filters are available in different levels of dB reduction. It is important to find the right level so your ears are protected at all times. Based on the noise exposure levels and the target level, the correct noise reduction of the hearing protector can be determined.

Ensuring adequate protection for workers is important.

Earmuffs or custom made hearing protection

When it comes to over-protection, wearing earmuffs poses a bigger risk than when custom earplugs are worn.

Custom earplugs with high-fidelity filters can be put in at the beginning of the day and taken out at the end of the day. They don’t sweat or interfere with glasses or hardhats and are comfortable to wear for hours on end. If the right filter is chosen there is no need to take them out to hear.  Speech remains clear and not muffled like with earmuffs. Earmuffs are often shifted to the back of the head to hear speech – this poses the risk of being exposed to loud noises and therefore hearing damage

What is the highest level of ear protection?

Hearing protectors are classified from class 1-5. Many employers think by ordering Class 5 protectors (the highest level of protection available) they protect the hearing of their workers in the best way. They may even insist on a solid plug as they think that will reduce the most noise.

As discussed above we are looking for the best protection in specific situations and not the most.

What Class of Hearing Protection do I need?

Professional  advice on the best protection reduces the risk of over-protection. Ideally you would like to have the most situational awareness and clear communication while your ears are protected against louder work noise like in mining, building or dentistry.

At Pacific Ears we fit hearing protection for numerous different types of professions.

To help you in the best possible way you can explain to us the kind of noise you are exposed to, how long, what kind of environment and how important communication is.

We can then give you the best advice about which filter works best in your specific situation. This allows you to start protecting your employees’ hearing at the appropriate level and keeping them safe in the workplace!

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