Doing your job shouldn’t cost you one of your five senses. And with the right hearing protection, it doesn’t have to.
It’s your employer’s responsibility to create a hearing conservation program if you work in a noisy environment, but it’s your responsibility to wear hearing protection properly.
Many people don’t realize they’re wearing hearing protection incorrectly because noise-induced hearing loss often lacks immediate symptoms. Watch out for these three common mistakes people make in wearing earplugs and earmuffs.
1. Choosing the wrong noise reduction rating
Earplugs and earmuffs have a noise reduction rating (NRR) to indicate how much your noise exposure will be reduced by wearing them. While your employer should provide hearing protection with the correct NRR, it’s a good idea to understand how it works for yourself.
The most important thing to know is that the NRR is not equal to the number of decibels reduced. To get that number, subtract seven from the NRR and divide it by two.
How do you know the NRR you need, though? First, you must know your eight-hour time-weighted average, or your average noise exposure in decibels over a typical workday. If your employer conducts audiometric tests, they should be able to tell you this number.
To find out your new protected exposure level, subtract the adjusted NRR from the time-weighted average (TWA). Here’s the formula:
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a noise exposure level of 85 decibels.
2. Selecting and inserting earplugs incorrectly
Choosing earplugs with the correct Noise Reduction Rating is only the beginning. If your earplugs aren’t fitted properly, the protected exposure level you calculated above won’t be accurate.
To get the right fit, begin by choosing the correct earplug size for your ear. Women typically have smaller ear canals and may need narrower earplugs.
Next, clean your hands and make sure you insert the earplugs correctly. According to NIOSH, the correct procedure for soft foam earplugs is to roll the earplug, pull the top of your ear up and back, slide in the earplug and hold it until it expands. You can check the fit by putting your hands over your ears.
“If sounds are much more muffled with your hands in place, the earplug may not be sealing properly,” NIOSH instructs.
This isn’t a perfect test, though. To help you get a more accurate number, many earplug manufacturers offer earplug fit testing services, along with training for proper earplug selection and insertion.
3. Removing hearing protection too soon
For hearing protection to be effective, you need to wear it. Most hearing loss happens when you least expect it.
If you work in construction, it can be tempting to remove your hearing protection when the job site seems quiet — especially if it’s hot or humid. But if a worker from a different trade starts a pneumatic drill, you’ll be hit with 130 decibels of noise. At that high of a decibel level, you may even feel immediate pain.
However, one of the most common culprits of hearing loss is continuous noise over 85 decibels. This type of noise is dangerous because you can’t tell if it’s damaging your hearing. Hearing loss occurs gradually without any immediate symptoms.
So, even if you think, “It’s not that loud,” you should continue wearing your earplugs or earmuffs. You can’t rely on your own sense of sound to determine whether you need hearing protection.
Protect your hearing
Wearing hearing protection properly may not seem important now. But over time, it can be the difference between hearing the voices of your family and friends clearly and missing out on conversation.
Make sure you use the right noise reduction rating, fit your earplugs properly and keep wearing hearing protection even when you don’t think you need it.