Workers should roll, plug and hold on to their hearing
Ear plugs are the most common form of ear protection used by industrial workers as a means of noise control. But it's not always obvious to workers, or employers, as to when it is necessary to use ear plugs.
As an employer, you need to identify which of your workers are exposed to noise levels exceeding 85 dBA (the time-weighted average of decibels over an eight-hour period), as dictated by OSHA.
Some common examples of sounds greater than 85 dBA are most hammer drills (102-106 dBA) and leaf blowers (95-105 dBA).
This means taking steps to measure noise levels using instruments that must be calibrated to ensure measurement accuracy.
OSHA also requires that noise level monitoring be repeated each time there is a change in production processes or equipment that increases noise exposure.
Once noise levels are determined, any workers exposed to a constant level of 85 decibels or more need to be monitored for hearing loss and protected with ear plugs or ear muffs.
At the very minimum, workers need to be supplied with one pair of ear plugs and one pair of ear muffs.
Look for the NRR rating when buying ear plugs
All ear plugs are given a noise reduction rating (NRR) that must be displayed on the product's packaging. The higher the NRR number, the more hearing protection is provided.
The highest rated disposable foam ear plugs have an NRR of 33 decibels, and the highest rated reusable ear plugs have a slightly lower NRR of 32.
Ear plugs come as either single-use or reusable. Single-use ear plugs are self-forming, meaning they are pliable and adjust to the shape of the wearer's ear, whereas reusable ear plugs are preformed and fitted by a hearing protection specialist.
With the assistance of a trained ear protection fitter, it's up to the worker to decide which type and size of ear protection will be used.
Some workers are reluctant to use ear plugs because they fear they will puncture their ear drums by inserting the ear plugs too deeply. However, experts say that this is not a concern.
Ear plugs are relatively comfortable to wear and should not cause pain or discomfort. Soft ridges alongside the ear plugs ensure that the plugs are gripped tightly inside of the ears so that they do not fall out during work.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides complete instructions on how to wear soft foam ear plugs.
Ear plugs versus ear muffs
Most ear muffs provide greater noise protection than ear plugs. However, in areas where noise levels are extremely high - exceeding 100 dBA over an eight-hour period such as is the case with power saws, pneumatic hammers and airplane takeoffs - NIOSH suggests that workers wear ear plugs and ear muffs at the same time.
Think of ear plugs and ear muffs as the last step in protecting workers from noise hazards. Employers need to first implement all appropriate engineering and administrative measures in the workplace before depending on ear plugs and ear muffs to prevent hearing damage in their workers.