Hearing Protection: Disposable Earplugs March 23 2018

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the U.S. In fact, 23% of workers who are regularly exposed to hazardous noise levels while at work experience hearing difficulty including tinnitus. Tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying condition such as ear injury and involves the annoying feeling of hearing ringing or buzzing noises in one or both ears even when there are no outside sounds is present. 

The exposure to loud noise such as those from heavy equipment from construction sites is a common source of noise-related hearing loss. People who work in noisy environments such as factory and construction workers are particularly at risk of prolonged exposure to loud noise that often causes damage to the tiny sensory hair cells in their ears that transmit sound to the brain. Noise-related hearing damages such as tinnitus can significantly affect a worker’s quality of life to a point where they experience extreme fatigue, anxiety, and irritability, sleep deprivation, concentration problems, stress or depression. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, permissible exposure limit to noise levels, is about 90 A-weighted decibels (dBA) for 8 hours. Therefore, taking certain precautions by wearing hearing protection such as disposable earplugs while working around noisy areas or machines for more than eight hours can minimize noise-related hearing loss.  

Disposable earplugs come in various shapes and designs, therefore, they must be worn correctly and fit properly for them to do the job effectively. Also known as sound plugs, disposable earplugs should be able to prevent noises louder than 85 decibels and should be worn by workers who are around any loud environmental noise, such as when working around industrial machinery, power tools, or harmful noise levels as recommended by OSHA. 

Among the different types of noise plugs, such as custom noise plugs which are purchased through a hearing healthcare professional, as well as earmuffs, for those working in extremely loud environments such as with aircraft engines or heavy machinery, and reusable noise plugs that come either corded or non-corded, disposable earplugs are generally made of a foam material, however, they must be discarded after each use. 

The consequences of not safeguarding your hearing by having the correct PPE-approved hearing protection in a noisy work environment are quite obvious. All employers must, therefore, consider the level of noise that needs to be kept out when choosing the right hearing protection for their specific industry. Depending on the length of exposure, sounds of 90 dB and higher are harmful, whereby, the Noise Reduction Rating (NNR) for earplugs is between 22 and 33 dB, which means that disposable earplugs offer superior hearing protection as compared to regular ear muffs whose NNR is between 20 and 30 decibels. 

While disposable earplugs are small, portable, can be used in combination with other hearing protection devices, and are convenient in small spaces, they may, on the other hand, irritate the ear canal and can harbor bacteria.