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Combining protection for multiple hazards can often be a delicate balancing act. Adding one piece of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may compromise another. Renee Bessette of Sperian Hearing Protection shares some factors to consider when selecting hearing protection for use with other PPEs.

Posted: March 4, 2009


Combining protection for multiple hazards can often be a delicate balancing act. Adding one piece of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may compromise another. Mismatching can not only be uncomfortable, it can also compromise fit and effectiveness. In hearing protection, a common example of this occurs when earmuffs are worn with other head protection ? safety eyewear, hard hats, faceshields, or welding helmets. Each piece alone performs very well, but the wrong combination can compromise the attenuation of the protector, sometimes significantly.


The conflict occurs when two pieces of PPE compete for the same headspace, or in the case of earmuffs, headband space. The combination of earmuffs with other PPE can result in problems such as insufficient clearance for headband (with a hard hat), gaps around the earmuff seal (with safety glasses), insufficient clearance for earcup (with faceshields and welding helmets), and contact transmission of vibrations (with respiratory hoods).


In most cases, the earmuff wearer can simply switch to earplugs to avoid such conflicts. Earplugs offer the same ? or sometimes higher ? level of protection, and are compatible with virtually all other PPE. But in some cases, use of an earmuff is still preferred over an earplug. Earmuffs have the advantage of being easier to don, more comfortable for some users, and more hygienic in some dirty environments. Some choose earmuffs for additional body protection from sparks or other flying debris. Some wearers cannot switch to earplugs because their specialty earmuffs are wired for communication or radio transmission. Earmuffs are also the preferred hearing protector for employees suffering from acute or chronic ear infections or irritations.


Manufacturers have developed a wide range of earmuffs compatible with other PPE, as shown in the table below. Cap-mounted earmuffs are available for use with a variety of hats, allowing users to rotate the earmuffs back when not in use. Neckband models are ideal for use with faceshields, full-brim hard hats and welding helmets, where the band works unobtrusively behind the neck.


With the right selection of compatible PPE, the attenuation of an earmuff is not compromised. But whether you offer employees earplugs, earmuffs, or a combination of both, the key to a successful hearing conservation program is to offer an adequate selection. Research has shown that comfort is the number one human factor governing earplug use. Not everyone’s ears and ear canals are alike, and a device that one person can wear all day may cause another extreme discomfort, and consequently not be worn.


Nor are application requirements the same for hearing protectors. Thus, a wide variety of hearing protectors are available to meet specific applications and/or employee preferences. Here’s a quick overview of earplug and earmuff styles.


Single-use, or disposable, earplugs are the most common type used today. They are popular because of their low cost, ease of use, and high level of comfort. There are different styles, ranging from the 35-year-old yellow PVC barrel earplugs to the latest contoured polyurethane (PU) foam earplugs. PU foam earplugs are soft, comfortable, easy to roll down for insertion, and available in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and colors. PU foam is also made in different densities, which means you can get a heavier earplug that blocks out the maximum amount of noise (NRR 33 is the highest attenuation available) or a lower density in a smaller shape that exerts less pressure on the ear canal. These are particularly useful for people who wear earplugs for extended periods of time or have smaller ear canals.


Single-use earplugs are available in corded or uncorded styles. Corded earplugs are convenient if you have a process that generates noise intermittently, as they can be taken out and hung around your neck, then reinserted as needed. In addition, single-use earplugs are often offered in bulk for use in dispensers that can be placed throughout a facility, improving HPD accessibility and use. Dispensers also offer employers a cost-effective solution, providing savings upwards of 10 percent per year in HPD purchases alone, in addition to reducing packaging waste as a green alternative.


While significantly more expensive than single-use styles, multiple-use earplugs can be more economical over time. A dollar spent on a pair can often go farther than the pennies spent on single-use earplugs every day.


Multiple-use earplugs are typically molded out of a variety of vinyl or plastic materials, featuring a semi-rigid stem for insertion and pliable flanges to create a comfortable seal in the ear canal. Unlike most single-use earplugs, multiple-use styles do not require rolling, and are much easier to insert and remove. Some multiple-use earplugs are designed to fit all ears, while others come in different sizes to accommodate different canal shapes.


As most multiple-use earplugs cannot completely seal the ear canal, they do not block out as much sound as single-use models. However, there is a multiple-use earplug that utilizes material science to adapt its shape to an individual ear canal for a more personalized fit. Made of patented Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE), these earplugs are extremely comfortable over a long period of time, as they adapt to the contours of the ear canal and exert less pressure when worn properly.


With proper maintenance, multiple-use earplugs can be worn for approximately two to four weeks. On a daily basis, simply clean up with mild soap and warm water, and inspect each earplug for tears, breaks, and unusual stiffness that could compromise protection and fit.


Multiple-use earplugs are typically provided in a corded format, although uncorded styles are also available. Because people tend to use them repeatedly, it’s easier to hang them around their necks. One handy new feature is a detachable cord that allows them to be worn corded or uncorded according to preference.

Another development to both single-use and multiple-use earplugs is the enhancement of ambient sound through a passive technology. These new earplugs also offer improved acoustic performance through uniform attenuation. Simply, these foam materials block sound more evenly across all frequency levels, or octave bands, thereby not only blocking harmful noise but also allowing users to hear other sounds, such as speech and warning signals, more naturally and without the distortion typical of a high NRR earplug. For workers who need to communicate on the job or who complain of isolation when wearing hearing protection, earplugs with uniform attenuation offer a new alternative.


Another multiple-use option are banded earplugs. These are basically a pair of earplugs held together by a plastic band worn around the neck, and are very useful for people who move in and out of noisy areas. Banded earplugs are a kind of hybrid between earmuffs and earplugs. They provide the portability and convenience of earplugs, with the ease of use of earmuffs.


The pressure of the band facilitates insertion, and users can simply pop them on, walk into a noisy area, then take them off when they exit. Most can be carried in a pocket or hung around the neck, and maintained for a long period of time with replacement earpods. They are also an alternative in hot temperatures where earmuffs can become uncomfortable.


Earmuffs occupy the higher end of the price scale for HPDs, ranging from $10 to $300, or more. Contrary to popular belief, earmuffs typically offer lower Noise Reduction Ratings than earplugs. Still, earmuffs offer a high degree of comfort and usability, and most products with an acceptable NRR level will block most harmful noise, provided they are fitted and worn correctly.


Passive earmuffs are made from a wide range of materials. They block sound using just the foam and other components of the earcup. In certain industries, such as construction, utilities and airlines, passive earmuffs have a long history of acceptance.


When selecting a passive earmuff, there are several things to consider. Headbands can be plastic or metal. Some users feel that metal is sturdier and offers the best wear, while others prefer plastic headbands because they hold their shape with more integrity. The dielectric construction of plastic headbands may also be required in electrical environments. Those working in the outdoors or in low-lightning may need high-visibility earmuffs. These earmuffs feature brightly colored earcups and reflective headbands that improve their overall safety, in addition to hazardous noise protection.


Features promoting comfort and ease of use also should be considered, such as soft ear cushions, a good feel on the head, and headbands that adjust easily. Earmuffs should fit snugly and securely, creating a tight seal around the ear and not slipping around. And user instructions should be intuitive and easy to follow for a proper fit.


There are also a number of special application styles available for passive earmuffs. Cap-mounts, designed to be fitted on hard hats, are very popular in certain sectors. Neckband earmuffs can be worn around the back of the neck so users can wear them with other safety gear like welding helmets and faceshields, and multiple-position earmuffs can be worn with a band behind-the-head, over-the-head, or under-the-chin. These allow the earmuffs to be worn with other types of PPE. Folding earmuffs allow easy storage and portability, and optional carrying cases and belt clips help keep earmuffs at the ready throughout the workday.


Electronic earmuffs not only block sound, but also modulate that sound through electronic means. These means can be very simple?like amplifying ambient sound so users can better hear normal sounds in their environment?or more complex, such as offering two-way communication.


Prices for electronic earmuffs can range from $60 for a basic AM/FM radio earmuff to $300 or more for high-end headsets. Selection criteria are similar to passive earmuffs?comfort, fit, and durability?with the additional need to evaluate the degree of sophistication needed for the application. To block noise, most standard electronic earmuffs will probably do fine. However, if you have workers in boring or repetitive jobs, you may find job satisfaction can be improved with an AM/FM radio earmuff, or products that can connect to an MP3 player.


Things get more complicated when people need to talk to each other. There are a variety of products to provide these capabilities by incorporating boom microphones, two-way radios, cell phones, and the like, although not all devices have the same connectors. Customization is often required to connect these devices to the earmuff, but many users with advanced applications find this to be an acceptable solution. There are also some new simple and less expensive solutions to communication needs, including a new “push-to-listen” capability on some electronic muffs.


With all the options available, selecting Hearing Protection Devices can be a confusing task. To assist with this process, Howard Leight offers an online Hearing Protector Selector where users can identify their noise exposure levels or specific ratings, product styles and/or features, and the most applicable results are recommended.


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Renee S. Bessette is the marketing manager for Sperian Hearing Protection, LLC, 7828 Waterville Road, San Diego, CA 92154,


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