Photo courtesy of 3M

How do you choose hearing protection that is right for you and your crews? Cost is important, but you also need to factor in fit, comfort and compatibility with other personal protective equipment (PPE). It starts with the basic understanding that employees are more likely to wear equipment that is comfortable and fits properly. This is the third in a series of articles from 3M. Past articles explored factors to consider when choosing respiratory devices and safety glasses.

In high-noise areas, getting the proper fit with hearing protection is essential for safety, because an improper fit can greatly reduce the amount of noise reduction that the product can provide. And you can assume that one style of earplug or earmuff will not satisfy the needs of your entire workforce.

For example, earplugs need to go deeper in the ear canal than most realize. When the earplug is fit correctly, someone looking directly at you should not be able to see the earplug extending out from your ear.

How do you verify proper fit of an earplug? After you’ve inserted the earplugs, cup your hands over your ears. If you hear a drop in the ambient noise around you, it means the earplugs weren’t fit properly and you need to refit them. If the ambient noise level stays the same, it‘s an indication that you have achieved a proper fit.

If you can’t find an earplug that fits comfortably in your ear canal, consider an earmuff instead. Here, fit is just as important for an earmuff as it is with an earplug. To ensure a proper, firm fit, make sure there is no gap between the band of the earmuff and your head. This allows the headband to “pull” the cups against your head properly. If the cups don’t press against your head firmly, you may not achieve the level of protection that the earmuff is rated for.

Anything interfering with the sealing ring of the cups (including hat, hair, glasses, and pencil) can cause noise leakage which may reduce attenuation. In some cases, that can include safety glasses. The temple bar on the glasses may interfere with the sealing ring of the earmuff, breaking the seal, so it is critical that you wear safety glasses that are compatible and comfortable with earmuffs. How do you achieve this? Look for safety glasses with flatter temples that fit well under the earmuff and minimize noise leakage. This not only ensures better hearing protection, but also provides a more comfortable experience.

Construction job sites can be demanding, and trying to fit all of your PPE together comfortably is a challenge. When you have a hardhat, safety glasses, a respirator and then hearing protection on top of that, using earplugs rather than an earmuff may be a more comfortable choice. In dirty, dusty environments, a push-to-fit style of earplug can reduce the chance of transferring a contaminant into your ear canal because it features a stem that you can grab onto rather than touching the foam tip itself.

So remember, when choosing hearing protection for your workforce, it’s important to balance fit, comfort and compatibility.

Tools of the Trade editor Chris Ermides recently tested a 3M device that shows the impact that inappropriately sized devices can have on their ability to protect customers. See the story and a related video.