A Field Guide to Hearing Protection Devices

According to OSHA regulations, hearing protection devices “shall be provided” when harmful workplace noise cannot be controlled by other means.


Passive Earmuffs
Passive earmuffs, made from a wide range of materials, block sound using just the foam and other components of the earcup. 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. Stretching earmuff bands out to make them more comfortable, decreases the level of protection the product can provide. Earmuffs should fit snuggly and securely, creating a tight seal around the ear, and not slip around.

Special application styles available for passive earmuffs include: Cap-mounts, designed to be fitted on hard hats; neckband earmuffs can be worn around the back of the neck so users can wear them with other safety gear; and multi-position earmuffs can be worn with a band behind-the-head, over-the-head, or under-the-chin. Folding earmuffs allow easy storage and portability, and optional carrying cases and belt clips help keep earmuffs at the ready throughout the workday.

Uniform Attenuation Earmuffs
A fairly new product development is the uniform attenuation earmuff. These earmuffs not only block noise, but they employ advanced acoustic technologies to manage incoming sound providing additional benefits. By more uniformly attenuating several key octave bands (250Hz – 4KHz), protection is enhanced. Users can hear voices and warning signals more naturally.

Electronic Earmuffs
Electronic earmuffs not only block sound, but also modulate that sound through electronic means. Itw 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. The market for electronic earmuffs is much smaller than for other earmuff products, though some manufacturers are investing heavily in it. Prices can range from $60 for a basic radio earmuff to $300 or more for high-end aviation headsets. 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 a CD or an MP3 player.

Providing More Than NRR
A number of studies have shown that despite improvements in the effectiveness and availability of HPDs and despite regulations mandating their use, the incidence of job-related, noise induced hearing loss continues to rise. The reason for this can largely be attributed to the human factor: our species seems to have an innate reluctance to obey the rules, even when they are good for us. Selecting HPDs with comfort, convenience, and communication without inteference will improve worker safety, improve regulatory compliance, and may very well improve productivity and worker morale as well.

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