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Preventing hearing damage: the importance of ear protection

Most workplaces are quite noisy. Sometimes, the noise can be so loud that it exceeds 130 dB. This is almost as loud as a plane taking off. And people have to work in that kind of environment all day long!

That is why protecting your hearing against damage in the workplace is extremely important. Once the damage has been done, it can't be reversed.

What are the risks of hearing damage?

Damage to your hearing caused by loud noises can happen faster than you think. Many people think they can work near noisy machinery without wearing hearing protection.

Or they believe it's okay to take off their hearing protection for five minutes as they're wearing it all day anyway. But protection from hearing damage wears off much faster than you think:

  • Wearing hearing protection 100% of the time will provide the required protection.
     
  • Wearing it for 99% of the time (not wearing protection for even five minutes) significantly reduces the level of protection.
     
  • 90% of use no longer offers protection.

This means that not wearing hearing protection even for a for a very short time increases the risk of hearing damage! It’s important that you are not exposed to noise for too long.

How long is acceptable depends on the sound pressure (dB(A). This table shows the maximum exposure to noise at different sound pressure levels:

noise level in dB(A) Maximum exposure
80 dB(A) 8 hours
83 dB(A) 4 hours
86 dB(A) 2 hours
89 dB(A) 1 hour
92 dB(A) 30 minutes
95 dB(A) 15 minutes
98 dB(A) 7 minutes
101 dB(A) 3 minutes

At what point is your hearing damaged?

Hearing damage occurs when the hairs on the cochlea in the inner ear are damaged. This damage is permanent, and will last for the rest of your life.

There are a number of symptoms you’ll experience if you’ve suffered hearing damage. The best known examples are a ringing sound (tinnitus) or hissing sounds. However, if you can no longer hear loud or quiet sounds, there’s a chance that your hearing is damaged. Or if you have difficulties when making a phone call or holding a conversation in a noisy environment.

In addition to these hearing complaints, you may also experience certain medical issues as a result of hearing damage:

  • disturbed sleep
  • loss of concentration
  • tiredness
  • headaches
  • high blood pressure

What can you do to protect your ears? Simple: wear hearing protection!

In a noisy environment, hearing protection is an absolute must to prevent hearing damage. But how do you make the right choice among all the different options available?

What types of hearing protection are available?

There are different types of hearing protection. From simple, inexpensive earplugs to customised hearing protection for an individual wearer.

You may find it difficult to identify your employees' exact requirements. You’ll naturally want them to have the right protective equipment, but you don't want to pay too much unnecessarily.

Which is why we have listed all the types of hearing protection below.

Earplugs

Earplugs come in different shapes and attenuation values. Most earplugs consist of a kind of foam.

Foam earplugs are usually disposable products, do not cost much and are maintenance free. For relatively little money, you can buy a dispenser with 200 pieces. There are also silicone earplugs that can be washed and reused. Over a longer period of time, these are more economical than disposable ones.

The shape and firmness play an important role when choosing earplugs. These properties influence whether the earplug can be easily inserted into the ear canal and stay in place.

Using earplugs

 

Earplugs are especially suitable if you work in a warm, humid environment. Or in areas where hygiene is very important, such as in the food industry. Corded earplugs are best suited for this purpose. The cord prevents the earplugs from dropping when processing food.

Earplugs can be inserted or removed from the ear when you enter or leave the area. This is why they are preferable when you need long-term hearing protection.

In some companies, it's even more important to find an earplug quickly if it's fallen out. Metal detectable earplugs are available for this purpose. These have pieces of metal in both the earplug and the cord, and they are often coloured blue.

Benefits

  • Good attenuation over a large frequency range.
  • Comfortable, with no pressure on your ears.
  • Maintenance-free

Disadvantages

  • Sometimes difficult to insert.
  • Expensive when the disposable type is used.

Ear muffs

Apart from earplugs, you can also wear ear muffs to prevent hearing damage. There are a number of types:

Level-dependent

 

Passive ear muffs dampen the sound due to the material they’re constructed from. The level of hearing protection depends on the sound level. Passive ear muffs are effective for high pitched sounds, such as alarms.

Active ear muffs have a built-in electronic system. This system detects a low noise through a microphone, and amplifies and transmits it to a loudspeaker in the earcup, and vice versa. This helps to control the sound in the ear muff.

External audio input

 

Radio ear muffs or ear muffs with a connection for a smartphone and Bluetooth dampen ambient noise, but the wearer can still receive signals, music and other messages.

Communication ear muffs also have a walkie-talkie feature. This allows employees to communicate better without the need to remove their hearing protection.

Using ear muffs

 

Ear muffs can almost always be used, especially at very high sound pressure levels. If you often have to switch between wearing and removing your hearing protection, ear muffs are a better choice than earplugs. There are also special ear muffs for hygienic purposes.

A simple passive ear muff is available for around 20 euros. If you want active ear muffs, these would cost you approximately 60 to 70 euros. The price of communication ear muffs, with all the bells and whistles, starts at 700 euros, but include all the benefits of communication.

Benefits

  • They fit everyone
  • They provide good noise damping
  • Reliable damping data
  • Communication is retained

Disadvantages

  • Sometimes uncomfortable due to pressure during prolonged use
  • Uncomfortable in warm and humid environments
  • Difficult to work with in confined spaces
  • Maintenance sensitive
  • Communication ear muffs especially, are very expensive

Customised hearing protection (otoplastics)

The final option for preventing hearing damage is by wearing customised hearing protection. This is also known as otoplasty.

Custom-made hearing protection for a specific wearer is created by making a mould of the ears. When the ear muff plug is produced or 3D-printed, filters are fitted depending on the application or working conditions.

There are soft and hard otoplastics. Which one to choose is often a matter of preference.

Benefits

  • They have a long lifespan and are therefore very economical in the long term
  • Discreet during use
  • Easy to insert
  • They fit very well and comfortably

Disadvantages

  • High purchase price
  • Can’t be purchased off-the-shelf; must be made to measure

Conclusion

There is definitely an abundance of options for protecting yourself against hearing damage.

Use earplugs if you need to wear hearing protection for a long period of time, or have a limited budget.

If you regularly need to wear and remove protection, you’re advised to choose ear muffs.

Passive ear muffs are the cheapest version, whereas active ear muffs have their own electronic noise control.

Are you looking for a communication solution so that your employees can talk to each other? Then go for communication ear muffs, which are a little more expensive because of the different technologies.

Otoplastics will last a long time, are comfortable and durable, but are less readily available than earplugs or ear muffs, as they need to be made to measure.