How to choose earplugs

For workers required to wear earplugs on the job, there are many factors that can affect which type they will prefer to wear.

Because ear canal sizes vary from person to person, it’s beneficial to have several types of earplugs for employees to choose from. This helps ensure the earplugs feel comfortable to each wearer, which increases the likelihood of them being worn properly and for longer periods of time. Employees who have different earplug options can also feel more satisfied because they feel their personal preferences are being taken into consideration.

Top considerations when choosing earplugs

1. Comfort

  • Pressure – The pressure a worker feels while wearing earplugs depends on the material, fitting and the size of the earplug relative to the size of the worker’s ear canal. When pressure is too high, the earplug can feel uncomfortable in the ear. When choosing an earplug, it’s suggested that workers wear it for an extended period of time to ensure the pressure isn’t too high. If the earplugs causes discomfort, CSA Z94.2 recommends wearing the earplug for a two week period to determine whether discomfort will decrease or if the choice of hearing protector should be re-examined.
  • Size - Because ear canal sizes vary from worker to worker, it’s important to provide several sizes or styles of earplugs so that wearers can find the size that fits snugly enough to help protect them from noise but is not too tight that they feel uncomfortable. For example, someone with small ears might prefer a small earplug that is easier to insert into the ear canal after it is rolled down or a push-to-fit style that fits small ear canals.
  • Softness – When earplugs are reinserted into the ear several times a day or when a new pair is worn, the softness of the earplug can affect worker comfort
  • Temperature – In hot, humid environments, earplugs are often preferred over earmuffs. Certain earplugs, such as the 3M™ E-A-R Classic™ Earplugs, are made of a PVC foam that is moisture-resistant and ideal in hot/humid conditions.  

2. Ease of use

  • Hygiene – In dirty environments or when workers are required to wear gloves, reusable earplugs and push-to-fit earplugs are an ideal option because they have unique handles to easily grip to help keep the tips of the earplugs clean while they are worn. Because these types of earplugs don’t need to be rolled down before insertion, the tips are much less likely to get dirty.
  • Frequent insertion and reuse – For workers who need to insert earplugs quickly or in a hurry and do so many times during a shift, push-to-fit earplugs are a convenient option, as are corded earplugs.
  • The innovative design of push-to-fit earplugs eliminates the need for rolling the foam tip. This makes it easier for wearers to get a proper fit quickly — even for first-time wearers.
  • Storage – When hearing protection is needed only intermittently, earplugs with compact storage cases are a quick and easy way to make sure earplugs stay clean in between uses. Refillable earplug dispensers are another way to make sure earplugs are readily available when and where they are needed, with the added benefit of cutting down on packaging waste. Corded earplugs can also help cut down on waste and are convenient for workers who insert and reuse often as they can simply hang around the neck.
  • Compatibility with other PPE – Earplugs are a popular option when other PPE is worn because they do not interact with products in the same way that earmuffs might. For example, when hard hats, safety glasses and respirators are worn, earmuffs can often interfere with the effectiveness of other types of PPE – making earplugs a better choice. Compatibility with the type of work being done is also important. For instance, in dirty, dusty environments, washable reusable earplugs might be preferred. In the food industry, metal detectable earplugs are preferred because they can help prevent contamination in the case of an earplug or cord accidentally making its way into the food supply.​

3. Communication

  • Workers are able to communicate – It’s important for workers to be able to hear and communicate on the job, even while wearing earplugs. Earplugs worn should provide the appropriate amount of noise reduction for the exposure and should be worn according to user instructions.
  • Communication is easier – When the right earplugs are chosen for the environment a worker is in, loud sounds are reduced to more comfortable levels. This allows ears to process noise, conversation and important warning sounding with less distortion. When an earplug with a high attenuation rating is worn in a low-noise situation, overprotection may occur which could hinder the worker’s ability to hear critical sounds and communicate with others.  Earplugs like the 3M™ PELTOR™ Electronic Earplug are able to combine hearing protection with microphones that enhance situational awareness which are ideal in situations like these.

4. Effectiveness

  • The most important part of choosing an earplug is making sure it helps provide adequate protection from the noise at hand. This is determined by using an earplug’s attenuation rating or fit testing the worker to make sure they are achieving the specified attenuation. The 3M™ Dual-Ear Fit Validation System offers hearing protection fit testing as an objective way to measure a person’s personal attenuation rating (PAR).

Most popular types of earplugs

Disposable foam earplugs

  • The most popular type of earplug
  • Needs to be rolled into a small cylinder before inserting.
  • Comfortably conforms to the unique shape of the ear canal
  • High noise reduction when worn properly
  • Cost-effective and affordable

Push-to-fit earplugs

  • Feature a soft foam tip and flexible stem that doesn’t need to be rolled down before insertion
  • Easy to use, especially for workers who have difficulty rolling and inserting disposable foam earplugs
  • Can be inserted when hands are dirty or when gloves are worn
  • Comfortably conforms to the unique shape of the ear canal

Reusable earplugs

  • Are washable and have flexible, elastic flanges attached to a handle/grip
  • Can be reused many times, resulting in less waste
  • Cost-effective because they are replaced less often
  • Can be inserted when hands are dirty or when gloves are worn
  • Material doesn’t absorb moisture, making them ideal for wet conditions or when workers perspire heavily
  • Have a moderate attenuation which allows workers to hear more sound when a high noise reduction rating (NNR) isn’t needed

Custom molded earplugs

  • Made of a durable material that is molded into the unique shape of the wearer’s ears
  • Can be reused for long periods of time, results in less waste
  • Fits the wearer’s ear canals when properly made

Electronic earplugs

  • Helps provide hearing protection and situational awareness (via a level-dependent function)
  • Rechargeable with a durable storage/charging case
  • Small and lightweight design
  • Compatible with most head-borne 3M Personal Protective Equipment

Banded/semi-inserts earplugs

  • Soft pods or tips
  • Held in place by a lightweight spring-loaded band
  • Best used when frequent off/on is required

Have more questions about choosing the right earplugs for your workers? Get in touch with a safety specialist today.

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