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Selecting hearing protection

by Leon A. Frechette

Do guys really have selective hearing? Maybe! That seems to be a running joke, but as I get older, I realize that I should have taken more safety precautions over the years to protect my hearing from loud music and when working around power equipment. Consequently, I've experienced some high-frequency loss. While this loss could be related to aging, it was most likely caused by exposure to severe noise from jackhammers, firearms, and worm-driven saws that deliver an especially high pitch.

What do I mean by "selective hearing"? While the ear registers the lower frequencies, the high-frequency pitches get missed when the sound is converted into signals the brain can decode. High-frequency hearing loss causes one to mistake hearing one word for another, to have trouble hearing children and women's voices, to hear "mumbling" when people are actually speaking clearly (that's my youngest), and to not hear well in places with background noise. These types of hearing losses all relate to higher pitches.

I'm having a hard time accepting the fact that I have a hearing deficiency. While I recently purchased my first pair of reading glasses, I'm not ready to throw in the towel and get a hearing aid. So, to not make matters any worse than they already are and even though it's 40 years late, I now make sure that I protect my ears and eyes when working around any power equipment, gardening and woodworking tools, and in the presence of any other constant noise like those small prop planes I frequently ride in.

What's the bottom line? Earmuffs and insert earplugs should be on hand when engaging in any project that involves noise. How do you choose the correct hearing protection? Consider one that provides protection from both impulse noise and exposure to continuous high noise levels. Know the environment you'll be working in, the type of equipment that will be running, and how long it will it be in use. For example, will the noise you'll be exposed to be impulse or continuous, e.g., firearms versus a surface planer?

It's helpful to understand noise levels in decibels to help determine appropriate hearing protection. Think about the last time you listened to a jet take off. The decibel level of take-off at a distance of 2,000 feet is 110; an auto horn only three feet away will reach the same level. Compare this to the normal level of human conversation, which measures 50 to 60 dB. Your goal is to lower the decibel noise level at your ears.

Earmuffs and insert earplugs sold on the market have a "Noise-Reduction Rating" (NRR) listed on the package. You'll soon discover that earmuffs can have a decibel (dB) rating from 19 to 31, self-adjusting foam insert earplugs could have a rating between 30 to 34 dB, and insert ribbed rubber plugs are around 27 dB. What does this mean for you? Well, it means that the level of noise at ear (dB) could be lowered by the NRR dB number the manufacturer uses for their product (noise level dB minus hearing protection NRR dB number equals noise level dB at ear). However, the NRR number can only be achieved if hearing protection is worn properly, i.e., by following the manufacturer's guidelines. Keep in mind that hearing protection is also recommended to reduce the harmful effects of impulse noise. The NRR is based on the attenuation of continuous noise and may not be an accurate indicator of the protection attainable from impulsive noise such as gunfire.

The final decision about hearing protection will ultimately be based on what is comfortable for you. I find that earmuffs do a better job than insert earplugs because they cover the entire ear. I personally prefer not to use inserts, especially when working around construction projects, because they can introduce foreign material into the ear canals. They can also get dirty (especially the foam inserts), but rubber earplugs can be washed. However, now that I've said that, I admit that I have used insert ribbed rubber earplugs in addition to earmuffs to cut down the noise level.

Be sure to try on earmuffs before purchasing to ensure they fit properly and that the headband is comfortable—this is especially important if you need to wear them for a long period of time. Check for good adjustment on the height of the ear cups. To achieve best results with earmuffs, remove as much hair as possible from under the ear cups to help them seal tightly around the ear. And I shouldn't have to tell you this, but be sure to remove pencils and any other foreign matter stored behind your ears.

Just like tools, it doesn't hurt to have a collection of hearing protection on hand so you can choose appropriate protection. To avoid "selective hearing," protect those ears!

To read reviews on hearing protection devices:

Click here to learn about Pro Tech's PA4000 Electronic Earmuff.

Click here to learn about Remington's R2000 Electronic Thin Muff.

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