Choosing appropriate hearing protection

This is a bit of a minefield as you can’t rely on the concepts of either ‘the more you pay the better the protection you get’, or ‘the protectors with the highest SNR number are stronger so must be better’. With hearing protection it is always a balance of getting the right level of protection under the protector which means making sure it is enough protection but also making sure it is not too much. Also, almost all hearing protection works best at specific frequencies so you need to make sure the protectors chosen perform at their best at the same frequencies at which the noise is generated in your workplace. But it’s not as complicated as that all sounds, just make sure you don’t use the route of most-expensive highest-SNR is always best.

The two errors in choosing hearing protection

Choosing on strength of hearing protection - over protecting

Many manufacturers of hearing protection shout loudly from the rooftops about how their protector is ‘the strongest’ and has ‘unsurpassed levels of performance’. Not only is this often just marketing bullshit (looking at you, Flare Audio) but for all but the very loudest workplaces you don’t want the strongest hearing protection. Like all things health and safety - too little safety is a bad thing, and too much safety is a bad thing, you want just the right amount of safety and for it to be proportional to the risk.

If you give hearing protectors which are too strong it starts to become detrimental in that people become isolated in their workplace, and compliance with wearing it decreases. They also start to be unable to talk to colleagues so remove it to speak, then often don’t put it back in. They run the risk of missing alarms, warnings or things like fork lift trucks. And don’t forget, not everyone’s hearing is the same and a middle aged bloke may already have some heavy-ish natural hearing loss already, so stick an overly-strong plug in there and he will hear nothing at all.

So don’t choose the strongest protection unless calculations show you absolutely need it.

Choosing on the price of hearing protection

I would always caution against buying hearing protection purely on price. This is because cheap isn’t always rubbish and in many cases cheap ear plugs or ear muffs may be perfectly good for the noise risks you have, while conversely a really expensive pair of ear defenders may be built to last until the 23rd Century but may not be powerful enough for the noise you are trying to control. Price is not that great an indicator of how powerful or suitable a hearing protector is.

As an example, the reusable E-A-R Push-In plug will knock about 38dB off the noise and cost around 58p per pair, while the Flare Audio ISOLATE Pro plugs cost £50 a pair but are actually weaker and offer slightly less protection (36dB). Paying £50 gets you a lower level of protection than paying 58p. Flare ISOLATE plugs just have better marketing.

Same in ear muffs. The Beeswift Economuff has an SNR of 27 and costs around £3.85, while the Peltor Optime I muff has exactly the same SNR of 27 but costs around £14.37. Same protection for around 4x the price. The Beeswift is a perfectly good muff but in all likelihood won’t last anything like as long as the Peltor which will go on for years - the price is in build quality rather than protection level.

Choose based on SNR, HML or Octave Band

So, if price isn't good enough, you then need to have some means of deciding if hearing protection is good enough and there are three different ways to do that.

  • SNR - good enough

  • HML - better

  • Octave band measurements - the best and how noise consultants should be doing it

To be clear, all are compliant with the Noise Regs., just that some are better than others.

Each of these are covered in their own page as they can take a little bit of explaining, so click away to your heart's content. (Although let's face it, your heart is probably telling you that you have a desperate urge to go and click on Facebook instead rather than some geek droning on about noise...).

Styles of hearing protection to make available

Once you have done the noise assessment and are using one of the three methods to decide which models of hearing protector you can use, how do you go about choosing which one(s) to issue to the staff? There is one basic rule to follow:

Have a few approved and available forms of hearing protection

An employer needs to have a few types of hearing protector available for employees to choose from. Some people loathe putting things in their ears, and many of those may feel some form of pain as the plug pushes against the delicate ear canal. Also not everyone has the same sized ear canals, so for example one plug may fit perfectly in your 60 year old long-serving Production Manager who has lug holes you could drive a train through, but the young apprentice may have tiny tubes that the plug is just too big for. Other people meanwhile loathe the slight pressure and heat on their ears which they get from ear muffs. 

I would always recommend that an employer has, as a minimum, two approved forms of ear plug and two approved forms of muff/defender. That way an employee can choose the best one for them, the compliance with using it will be better and everyone wins.

You may also find that some specific people or groups need another different for of hearing protection, for example fork lift truck drivers may need something different - they still have to wear hearing protection, but you need to take care not to over-protect.