Earplugs vs Earmuffs: Which gives better hearing protection?

When investing in ear protection to prevent hearing loss or noise disturbance, one choice that we need to make is whether we should buy earplugs or earmuffs. To help you decide which offers better hearing protection, we describe the pros and cons of each below. 

Why do I need a hearing protector?

Hearing loss as a result of continuous exposure to loud noises at work can directly cost you thousands of pounds, if left untreated. The effects of permanent hearing loss cause psychological damage and problems in your social life affecting your mental and physical well-being. Exposure to loud noise in the workplace can lead to loss of hearing and/ or tinnitus (a permanent ringing in the ears). You should wear a hearing protector if the noise or sound level you are exposed to is close to or greater than the occupational exposure limits (OEL) for noise. For most countries, this occupational exposure limit is 85 decibels (A-weighted) or dBA. 

Aside from workplaces, there are several times when we should use a hearing protector in our own homes such as mowing a lawn or using power tools. Hearing protectors can also be used to reduce noise disruption in order to meditate, sleep, study or read on public transport. One of our most basic needs is to get adequate sleep. However, due to an increase in distractions, many of us are not getting enough quality sleep. The source of noise distractions include music, television, snoring and traffic. For those in hospitals, the hum of equipment and other people coughing or talking can disturb and negatively affect the quality of your sleep. This causes exhaustion and irritability the following day. If the lack of sleep becomes chronic, far more serious effects can manifest such as depression and a weakened immune system so buying a pair of earplugs would be a worthy investment.

What are the two main types of hearing protection?  Earmuffs and earplugs.

EARMUFFS

 

The basic design of these devices is a headband with an ear cup on each side. There are several types of earmuffs and each type serves a different function but with the same basic design. The first type are click on earmuffs that go with helmets. These are often used in work environments with loud noises and potentially hazardous conditions. The second type are earmuffs which have microphones. These are particularly useful if there is a large amount of background noise in your work environment and you need to effectively communicate with others. The third type are noise canceling – meaning that these earmuffs have technology that can eliminate noise for the wearer. These are particularly useful if you need to concentrate on work and your surrounding environment is noisy.

What are the benefits of Earmuffs?

The main advantage of Earmuffs is that they are easily adjustable to any size and are hard to misplace, so you will likely only need a few. In addition to that, earmuffs can easily be put on without any prior training or instruction.

What are the disadvantages of Earmuffs?

The main disadvantage is that due to their large size, earmuffs are difficult to use in confined work environments. In addition, wearing earmuffs can make you uncomfortable in hot/humid environments and can interfere with other vital PPE equipment such as eye protection. 

EARPLUGS

 

 

These are devices that are directly inserted into your ear canal. They are usually made of foam and are meant to be disposed of after a single-use. The most common type are foam earplugs which are devices that when compressed are fitted into your ear canal. They then expand in order to create a comfortable fit. The other types of earplugs are used to filter out specific sounds.

What are the benefits of Earplugs?

The big attraction with earplugs is that they are portable and easy to transport. They are especially convenient when working in confined work environments since they do not interfere with other vital PPE equipment. Finally, earplugs can be worn in work environments that tend to be hot/humid.

What are the disadvantages of Earplugs?

Despite the several advantages that earplugs offer, there are some disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that it takes more time to figure out how to wear earplugs properly and get used to them. In addition to that, there is an increased chance of infection especially if wearers remove earplugs without cleaning their hands. The most common issue is that earplugs are easy to lose, so you will likely have to keep a large supply with you at all times. 

Hearing protectors reduce the noise exposure level and the risk of hearing loss when worn correctly. The effectiveness of hearing protection is reduced greatly if the hearing protectors do not fit properly, are not inserted or worn correctly, if they are worn only periodically, or if they are removed even for a short period of time. To maintain their effectiveness, the hearing protection should not be modified. Radio/music earphones or headsets are not substitutes for hearing protectors and should not be worn where hearing protectors are required to protect against exposure to noise. 

So which hearing protector is better for you?

In order to determine which one is best for you, it is important to decide which circumstances you find yourself in. Earmuffs provide an easy fit and do not need to be specially prepared. However, they can be uncomfortable in warmer climates and interfere with other PPE such as safety glasses. Earplugs on the other hand provide more hearing protection in most situations, but they can be difficult to correctly fit. When deciding which to purchase, decide what you value the most from the pros and cons above.    

Select hearing protection that is:

  • Correct for your job. Refer to the Health and Safety Executive UK for more information.
  • Provides adequate protection or noise reduction. (Check the manufacturer’s literature when purchasing a product).
  • Compatible with other required personal protective equipment, or communication devices.
  • Comfortable enough to be worn.
  • Appropriate for the temperature and humidity in the workplace.
  • Able to provide adequate communication and audibility needs (e.g., the ability to hear alarms or warning sounds).

Unless ear protection is offered at a workplace, most overlook the protection of their hearing, however, the small investment in earplugs or earmuffs can vastly improve your quality of life.   

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