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Comparing temporary and permanent hearing protectors

February 1, 2012

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How do I perform a comparative analysis of temporary versus permanent hearing protectors based on size, fit, style and protection provided?

Responding is Chris Brown, senior hearing protection executive, E.A.R. Inc., Boulder, CO.

Answer: If your workers are subject to noise-induced hearing loss due to potentially harmful noise in their work environment, then you or your safety team are well aware of the OSHA or Mine Safety and Health Administration regulations for compliance. Hearing conservation program audits and non-compliance fines are increasing at an alarming rate, and more companies are looking to provide the best variety of hearing protection devices to their workers to offset the likelihood of future violations, threshold shifts and hearing loss claims.

One way to counter these risks is to understand and measure the differences between the well-known temporary (disposable) hearing protectors and the lesser-known custom-fit (permanent) solution by performing a comparative analysis on the two candidates. Understanding the differences based on size, fit, style and protection will allow you to make the choices that will best protect your workers’ and company’s futures.

Whereas temporary earplugs provide a certain level of hearing protection with a universal fit benefit, custom-fit earplugs provide a more comfortable and consistent level of protection that is less wasteful.

What you should consider:

Size: “One size fits all” is far from the truth. When looking at temporary earplugs, “one size fits most” is more true; there is just too much variance from ear to ear to fit all. The ability to insert an earplug at a depth that reaches the second bend in the ear canal makes a huge difference in attenuation received. Custom units fit perfectly past the second bend – especially in collapsed or extra-narrow canals.

Fit: A poor fit produces poor results, including severe occurrences of hearing threshold shifts, both temporary and permanent. Disposables tend to lack proper protection because of improper fit from user error, as well as discomfort associated with wearing multiple pairs per day. Custom devices, when worn properly, go in at the same angle and depth every time.

Style: One style is disposable and temporary, while the other is reusable and lasts for up to five years or longer. The foam plug is usually made of polyurethane or memory foam, where the flanged or multi-flanged plugs are made of a preformed and graduated silicone rubber mold. Both of these temporary plugs seal the ear by expanding to their original size. Custom medical-grade silicone plugs can be coated with soft-skin layers to account for the natural ear growth and extend the life of the device. Custom-molded silicone plugs are hypoallergenic and easy to clean and re-coat for a more consistent protector.

Protection*: Hearing protection is currently measured in a laboratory with a noise reduction rating or onsite with a personal attenuation rating provided from a fit validation system. The NRR system is currently under review at the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA expects to implement a number of proposed changes to testing, labeling and regulation in regard to the real-world use of hearing protection. Keeping abreast of all NRR updates is advisable. PARs offer assistance in determining if the hearing protection level your workers are receiving is suitable to their work environment. Currently, the highest real-world protection usually is best achieved by inserting either a properly made custom-fit mold or a properly fit temporary earplug.

It is critical to examine the effectiveness of your hearing protection program, and educating your workers on proper insertion techniques is a significant aspect of that. What you put in your ear matters; research your options carefully.

* Hearing protectors are evaluated under laboratory conditions specified by the American National Standards Institute in ANSI S3.19-1974.

Editor’s Note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as National Safety Council endorsements.

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