Consider This: Choosing the Right Hearing Protection

By: Kari Buchanan, M.P.H., M.A., Industrial Hygienist & National Hearing Conservation Association Expert

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Hearing protection devices (HPDs) vary in their ability to attenuate noise. Several factors should be considered when selecting hearing protectors for specific settings and tasks. 

  • How much protection is needed? 
  • What is the characterization of the noise exposure? 
  • Is speech communication or other high-fidelity listening needed?  

To select an appropriate HPD, consider the noise spectrum; hearing critical tasks (HCTs) being performed by workers; and HPD noise reduction rating by octave band located on HPD packaging. If you don’t have access to all of this information, you can still select an HPD based on what you know about basic noise exposure and any hearing-related work tasks being performed. 

HCTs are tasks in which hearing is the only sense that can be used to perform that task (i.e., tuning a musical instrument, talking on the telephone). HCTs can be found in many job settings; for example, they may involve audible alarms, horns, calibration tones or speech-based communication systems. HCTs are categorized as tasks that require sound detection, sound localization or speech communication.

The best way to identify HCTs is to observe and interview supervisors and individual workers. If you observe people shouting to communicate over background noise; removing an earplug to talk with a coworker; turning their heads in the direction of a sound; or delaying response until an approaching object is much closer, these behaviors may indicate the need for an alternative type of HPD (such as a level-dependent, linear earplug). 

HPD Selection Considerations
This chart provides helpful guidance on how to determine if alternative HPDs are needed at a specific worksite. Interacting with and observing workers may also be helpful to increase employee awareness of hearing as a critical sense and to emphasize the importance of hearing loss prevention, on and off the job. Chart source: NHCA (https://www.hearingconservation.org/)

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