Hear ye, hear ye! (While ye still can . . . ) Hearing loss is irreversible! That means preventing hearing damage is critical before it’s too late.
We “hear” when specialized hair cells in our middle ear convert sound waves into electrical signals and send them to our brain. Sounds that are too loud cause these hair cells to become overstimulated and die. The longer our exposure, and/or the greater the noise, the more hair cells are killed off. As the number of living hair cells decreases, so does our ability to hear.
When Should You Wear Ear Protection?
The loudness of a sound is measured in decibels [dB] and relates to the degree of the pressure the sound waves create. The faintest sound the human ear can perceive is 0 dB, up to a maximum of 180 dB, the noise from a rocket launch. Normal conversation at 3–5 feet is about 60 decibels. Many experts agree that continual exposure to more than 85 decibels is dangerous. Shop tools and truck traffic are approximately 90 decibels; while a power mower, a chainsaw, a pneumatic drill, and a snowmobile are all just over 100 decibels. Sandblasting, power saws, and loud rock concerts are approximately 115 decibels. A gun blast and a jet engine would each be examples of 140 decibels — and at this level, even short term exposure can cause permanent damage. In fact, 140 decibels is the loudest recommended noise exposure with hearing protection. Instantaneous death of hearing tissue occurs at 180 decibels.
Ear protection effectiveness becomes greatly reduced when it doesn’t fit properly, or is worn only part of the time during noise exposure, so it’s imperative that you find the right kind of hearing protection for you, and commit to wearing it correctly and consistently.
What Types of Hearing Protection are Available?
There are two main kinds of ear protection:
- Ear plugs come in a multitude of styles and are inserted into the ear canal to block incoming noise. Ear plugs may be connected by a cord or cordless, pre-molded or moldable, and disposable or reusable. Banded earplugs (also called semi-insert ear plugs) consist of two ear plugs connected by a rigid headband. Regardless of which style you prefer, ear plugs are the most comfortable for hot, damp work areas; plus, they’re simple to use, economical, and effective.
- Ear muffs are made of noise-suppressing materials, soft cushioning that encompasses the entire ear, and a hard outer shell. They are held in place by a band which either goes over the top of, or around the back of the head. Ear muffs are very comfortable and come in a variety of styles and colors. Electronic ear muffs are available with high-tech features, such as radios, microphones, and impulse filters for sudden loud noises, like gun fire. Overall, ear muffs provide greater protection than ear plugs; plus, they’re easier to fit and generally more durable. They also have replaceable parts.
How To Choose the Right Hearing Protection
The choice of ear protection is a personal one and depends on a number of factors, including fit and comfort; but most importantly, your noise reduction needs. If the noise you’re dealing with is intermittent, ear muffs are a better choice, since it may be inconvenient to continually remove and re-insert earplugs. In areas where noise levels are very high, however, ear muffs and ear plugs can be worn together to offer the most protection possible.
How Do I Care for My Ear Protection?
Always start by following the manufacturer’s recommendations for whether or not your ear plugs or ear muffs are washable. If so, take your ear muffs apart, then use a a soft brush, mild liquid detergent, and warm water to remove oil and dirt that can harden ear cushions. Ensure that sound-reducing materials inside do not get wet. Rinse in clear warm water. Squeeze excess moisture from the cushions and then allow them to air dry.
Check your ear protection regularly for wear and tear, and replace ear cushions or ear plugs when they’re no longer soft or pliable. Replace ear muffs when the head band is over-stretched and no longer keeps the ear cushions snug against your head.
Hearing loss usually develops over a period of many years, and since it is painless and gradual, you might not even notice it until you realize you’re having trouble understanding what people say, especially in a noisy place, like a party. Of course, it’s best to not let it come to that, but if needed, a physician specializing in hearing disorders (called a otolaryngologist or otologist) can diagnose your hearing problem and recommend the best way to manage it.