Common Hearing Protection Mistakes

Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is a progressive, debilitating and preventable condition.  While every effort to protect yourself can be made, here are some common hearing protection mistakes.

Ignoring the problem

How many times have we seen children covering their ears around loud sounds, while adults blissfully absorb the full impact?  Might that be a clue?  Children’s higher sensitivity (and better hearing) are a clear indication of the short term pain/damage and the long term impact of exposure to loud noises.  And yet, we all ignore the problem.  Whether it is a night out at a loud concert or sporting event, or a half hour mowing the lawn, people ignore the problem.  NIHL damage is cumulative and the short bursts from power saws, pneumatic tools and chain saws over time can lead to hearing problems.  Of all of the possible hearing protection mistakes, ignoring the situation is the worst.


Hand in hand with ignoring the problem is ignorance. One of the biggest problems for individuals and companies is not knowing the level of exposure. Following are some charts that indicate the level of noise for various tools and activities:


Almost all common power tools produce higher than safe noise levels.  A decibel meter will reveal how loud a sound is.  A dosimeter gives a measure of how much exposure an individual is receiving.  There are now free Android and Iphone apps that can be downloaded.  (While these are not calibrated, they do provide a good estimate of the level of noise.)

In an industrial environment, proper calibration and analysis is critical to determining the actual exposure for employees.  That entails both using the correct measuring device and understanding the actual exposure while using equipment.  (As an example, a measurement next to a diesel engine is much different than the sound inside the operator’s cab).

One thing to remember is that according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) the safe exposure threshold for sound is 85 db for 8 hours.  Each 3 db increase above that, halves the daily exposure limits.  The NIOSH daily limits at various volumes are outlined in the chart below:


As is illustrated at some sound levels, no exposure is safe.

Drowning out loud sounds with louder sounds

Using loud music to cover up loud sounds is not a solution.  It’s an even bigger problem.  Headphones or earbuds have the potential to deliver damaging sounds to your ears.  Limiting the usage and turning down the volume are two ways to address this issue.  If other people can hear your music, you are probably at risk of causing long term damage.  If you are around loud noises, use hearing protection, not noise to protect yourself.

Correct level of protection

Being aware of the noise environment, it is important to use the correct level of protection.  Zero protection should not be your first choice.  Thinking that in the short term when mowing the lawn or using a power tool, protection is not important, ignores the real risks.  Other than a real emergency, this should never be a fallback solution.

Secondly some sounds require dual protection.  If you are in an extremely loud environment, it might be important to use both plugs and earmuffs.  If dual protection is needed to reach the correct level of protection, then use it.

Third don’t overprotect.  If you need to take off your safety equipment to hear other employees, then you are probably using too much protection.   Realize, should you need to take off your equipment to hear, you are also less likely to hear safety warnings, or other dangers in your environment.

Proper us and fit

One of the biggest mistakes is improper use or fit.  The proper use of earplugs requires that they be securely fit in the ear canal.  If the plugs are not properly seated, they may provide almost no protection.  When muffs are used, you need to make sure that there is a tight seal as well around the ear.  Glasses and other equipment can cause leaks in the seal.  Again, without a proper fit the hearing protection is significantly compromised.

Replacing worn out equipment

If the muffler on your mower or chainsaw is broken, the level of noise is significantly higher.  The mufflers are designed for both proper operation and noise control of this equipment.  Replace them when they no longer function properly.  Similarly, when your hearing protection is worn out, it is time to replace it with new equipment.  Worn out plugs or muffs no longer provide the level or protection you need to safely operate in a loud environment.

Not realizing it is cumulative

When thinking about hearing protection it is important to remember that the damage is cumulative.  Each damaging exposure slowly reduces the quality of hearing.  While hearing aids allow for communication, they do not the entire range of sounds you once heard.  It is important to protect your hearing and avoid these common hearing protection mistakes.  Start today.

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PE Foam Earplugs: An Environmental Disaster

Millions of American workers use and discard polyurethane foam earplugs every day believing that they are doing what is in the best interest of their health. While the use of this product is highly beneficial for a person’s hearing health, the discarded PU foam plugs ultimately become a serious health hazard for future generations of people who have no direct connection to these workers. In this article we will discuss the ongoing environmental challenges created by polyurethane as well as how eco friendly earplugs are starting to make a difference.

Everyone agrees that PU earplugs protect from the noise exposure risks of construction, industrial manufacturing, shooting, and motorsport. The PU single-use disposable ear plug remains the most common type of hearing protection in use today. Regrettably, hundreds of billions of these earplugs have ended up in public landfills and waterways since they were first introduced to consumers and industrial workplaces more than 40 years ago. As a point of perspective, a single company with 200 employees wearing single use earplugs will dispose of more than half a million single earplugs in landfill within a three year period. PU earplugs never biodegrade, and once buried in landfills the polyurethane ultimately leaches into the ground water tables.


Polyurethane is a synthetic polymer developed in the 1940s, that is often used to replaces rubber, paint, wood, or metals. Polyurethane is found in a wide variety of modern appliances, furnishings, paints, vehicle parts, foam insulation materials, glues, and shoes, among many other applications, and has the advantages of strength, durability and elasticity. Some of the polyurethane used can be recycled into other products, but it all ends as waste eventually. The environmental problem is that once it enters the landfill it could remain there almost indefinitely because nothing we know is able to metabolize and digest it (in other words, it is not biodegradable), and the chemical bonds within it are so strong they do not degrade readily. Polyurethane can be burnt, but this releases harmful carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, along with other toxic chemicals.

There are four categories of earplugs: single use, which are worn once and then replaced when workers reenter a noise area; multiple use, which can be used repeatedly and cleaned with soap and water; banded earplugs, which essentially are two foam earplugs held together by a plastic or metal band; and detectable earplugs, which can be used in environments where you need to be able to screen for foreign substances in the finished product. These are particularly useful in the food processing, tobacco, and paper industries.

Single-Use Earplugs 
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 earplugs were introduced in the 1980s and have taken over a significant share of the world ear plug market. PU plugs 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 ear plug that blocks out the maximum amount of noise (NRR 33 is the current max) 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.

Multiple-Use Earplugs 
Reusable earplugs appeal to different types of users and companies. While they are significantly more expensive than disposable foam earplugs, over time they can actually be more economical. If wearers take proper care and maintain their multiple-use earplugs, the dollar spent on a pair can go a lot further than the pennies spent on each pair of single-use earplugs.

Multiple-use earplugs are typically molded with a semi-rigid stem and pliable flanges, so they don’t require rolling prior to insertion. They insert easily and can be quite comfortable for extended periods. Like disposables, most reusable earplugs used to be made of PVC, which has gotten bad press. It’s not a particularly environmentally friendly product, and many of these HPDs end up in a landfill.

Polyurethanes were first produced and investigated by Dr. Otto Bayer in 1937. Polyurethane is a polymer in which the repeating unit contains a urethane moiety. Urethanes are derivatives of carbamic acids which exist only in the form of their esters (Dombrow 1957). This structure can be represented by the following, generalized amide-ester of carbonic acid:


Polyurethane foam is a subset of synthetic plastics.  The main properties of polyurethane foam include the ability to be easily molded into various shapes and the capacity to return to its original shape.  Polyurethane foam comes in three types:  flexible, rigid and viscoelastic (i.e. memory) foam.  These foams are typically either polyether or polyester based polyols, that are not considered to be biodegradable compounds and are obtained from petroleum based resources.


Considering the versatility of polyurethane foam, it is understandable that demand is going to continue to increase with increased usage and application.  At the global level, polyurethane foam utilization reached 8 million tons and was expected to reach 9.6 million tons by 2016.  In 2010, the top consumers included North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe, with 95% of the global demand.


The next question to consider is where all of this polyurethane foam ultimately ends up after it has served its purpose and is no longer of use to the consumer. The answer, in general, is either a landfill or the ocean.  An analysis conducted by Marcus Erikson and colleagues to estimate the amount of plastic pollution currently residing in the world’s oceans found that 92.3% of all samples collected contained plastic materials and of the visual surveys conducted, they identified that the most frequently observed larger plastics were synthetic polymer foams.

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Warning Signs of a Noisy Work Environment

When thinking about noisy work environments, it is common to automatically think of occupations like road work, construction sites, or factories. Although, in reality these noisy work environments can be anywhere. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in the matter of just one year, 22 million employees have been exposed to high and dangerous volumes of noise. After this statistic became clear, it was obvious something needed to be done about it. They have since been penalizing companies where hearing safety was not being considered and about $1.5 million in fines overall have been issued.

Signs That the Noise May be at Dangerous Levels

Warnings of high noise volumes may not be noticeable until after you exit the area and usually the signs of the area being too loud will show up later on in the day. Some signs may include ringing, humming, or pain in the ears which is one of the most common signs that you are in an area where ear protection is most definitely needed.

Sometimes even temporary hearing loss, where everything goes completely silent for a short amount of time can happen. Another sign could include having to speak at high volumes just so the person next to you can hear what is trying to be said, when they might only be a few feet away from you. If you have to speak loudly in order for someone to hear you when there is barely any distance in between, that is a clear sign that something is not right with the noise levels in the area.

Can this be Reversed After the Damage is Done?

NIHL, which stands for (noise induced hearing loss) can happen at any age from children to the elderly. The average spent on hearing loss disabilities yearly is estimated to be $242 million, which is an astronomical number when it could have been resolved with protection for the ears. Unfortunately, these signs can either take place immediately or in the future. Sometimes even surgery and/or hearing aids can’t fix or improve this type of hearing loss so it is extremely important to stay on top of the game and fix the issue before it’s too late.

Effects on a Person’s Mental and Physical Health

Can exposure to high level noise environments affect someone’s mental health? The answer to this is yes. Noise can cause numerous problems for your mental health. Some illnesses from high volumes of sound would include Hypersensitivity, insomnia, and even Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) which occurs in the major blood vessels of the heart and is not curable. A past study had actually shown that people who live or work in noisy environments are more likely to be admitted to a hospital for things like a stroke, cardiovascular disorders, and more because of the high noise volumes and the stress it causes on the body.



Husten, Larry. “People Who Live Near Airports at Increased Risk for Cardiovascular Disease.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 8 Oct. 2013,

Lisa, Packer. “Advocating for Hearing Health in a Noisy Work Environment.” Healthy Hearing, Advocating for Hearing Health in a Noisy Work Environment, 23 June 2016,

 “UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor,

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