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Peltor Muffs.jpg

You wear safety glasses in the shop because seeing is an important skill. But hearing is pretty damn useful, too. Yet in all the home shops we’ve visited we almost never see hearing protection. Try this: every time you throw on a pair of safety goggles or prepare to use heavy equipment, take a second to consider if the intensity and duration of noise warrants additional safety gear. Even simple low-cost products will provide you with a measurable level of protection — and a few more years before “WHAT?” is your standard response to any query.

There are two main types of hearing protection devices: earplugs and earmuffs. Earplugs come in a wide variety of shapes and styles, from simple disposable foam plugs to reusable corded plugs with flaps. Earmuffs are available in many styles as well, from simple no-frills passive models, to FM radio active noise-cancellation muffs with push-to-hear buttons.

Pictured above is the Peltor H10A, also marketed by AOSafety as a pro-grade device. It’s quite comfortable, easily adjustable, and has a NRR (noise reduction rate) of 30 decibels. I tend to stay away from “economic” earmuffs since they’re usually only a few dollars cheaper — at the expense of comfort and durability.


AOSafety also makes some nice disposable foam earplugs. These plugs are easy to insert, make a tight seal, and are readily available almost everywhere. They carry an NRR rate of 32 db, though I’m a bit skeptical; it seems only logical that variances in ear canal geometries and insertion technique may result in slightly less real-world protection. Still, some protection is far better than none.

Although both of the aforementioned products are marketed by AOSafety, other big names such 3M and MSA Safety Works offer excellent hearing protection product lines as well. The main differences between products by the these brands are the shapes and styles of the devices. While some people swear by tapered earplugs such as those pictured above, others prefer MSA’s hexagonal foam plugs. If a product doesn’t fit you well, try another.

Street pricing for the Peltor H10A starts at about $15, and the disposable AOSafety earplugs go for about $2.50 for four pairs. I found the above-pictured 80 pair dispenser for less than $16 at Lowes — not a bad deal considering they’ll last a few years. Adn Amazon is currently offering the Peltor H10A for $17.66 with free standard shipping.

Peltor H10A Porfessional Earmuffs [Peltor]
AOSafety Professional Earmuffs [AOSafety]
AOSafety Earplugs [AOSafety]
Street Pricing (Peltor H10A) [Google Products]
Via Amazon [What’s this?]


19 Responses to A Friendly Reminder: Protect Your Ears, Too

  1. mike d says:

    I’ve got the earmuff pictured. Very comfortable and when you put them on there’s an eerie silence. They’re great in the shop and while mowing the lawn. Couple them with a set of ear plugs and I bet you couldn’t even hear the voices in your head.

  2. Same here – the earmuffs above are awesome. The disposable ear plugs are ok, but I like reusable ear plugs much better.


    They are more useful b/c you can take them out to talk w/someone, then put them back in to continue working. The foam ear plugs didn’t like being reused that often through the day.

    Another advantage of ear plugs versus ear muffs is they’ll fit under your welding helmet 🙂

  3. Ken says:

    WHAT? opps i already hit that stage. The only time it comes in handy is when she tells me to take out the garbage or some other mundane task.
    I now wear ear protectors and I didn’t work around loud machinery or noises.

  4. Rob says:

    I have 3 sets that have been converted to headphones I use around the house. The cable is removable so the function as plain earmuffs as well.

  5. Tony Clifton says:

    As a musician, I am most familiar with the disposable foam plugs. (I never could bring myself to get the nice custom molded plugs because, well, the cheapies work almost as well, just with a more distorted attenuation curve.)

    If you find that the cheap foam plugs don’t seem to fit all that well, you might try using your other hand to *gently* lift up on the top of your ear before inserting; this straightens the ear canal somewhat and makes it easier to get the plug in to its full depth. Also, I find that sometimes I haven’t compressed the foam part enough to get in all the way.

    Of course, I’m sure that I just reiterated the instructions printed on the back of the package, but I’ve had to show enough people how to put plugs in over the years that I think it bears repeating.

  6. Chris says:

    My dad’s an audiologist and deals with this sort of thing (and the aftereffects of not wearing them) on a fairly regular basis. Some basic rules of thumb to keep in mind:

    1) The NRR on any hearing protection is a fun number for ad copy, but in real-world use, you can expect about half the NRR advertised.

    If you’re in an environment that subjects you to 100 dB of noise on a regular basis, in other words, wearing 30-dB cans or plugs will get you to about 85 dB in the ear, which is the level at which OSHA requires employers to provide (and employees to *use*) hearing protection. In other words, if your job site is this loud, wear multiple types of hearing protection.

    Which brings me to rule of thumb #2: the NRRs are not additive, but wearing plugs under cans is a lot better than either one by itself.

    Another thing to be aware of: lots of people do not use plugs properly. Foam plugs like the ones pictured must be rolled into a small cylinder, then carefully inserted into the ear and allowed to expand. If you don’t roll them tight and can’t get at least 75% of the plug into your ear, you didn’t do it right and you aren’t getting anywhere near the protection you think you are. Headphone-style cans are a better option for a lot of people because they’re fairly foolproof — put them on and you’re (fairly well) protected without any fuss.

    I spend an average of about 90 hours each month in the cockpit of a turboprop-powered airliner, and I wear both foam plugs *and* a headset. That gets the noise level down to where I can tolerate it most of the time, although I’ve been known to turn on the active noise reduction on the headset on long flight legs. Plugs by themselves are OK, but the headset by itself is not really enough protection for my taste.

  7. Chris says:

    Oh yeah. And unless you have a serious earwax problem, the disposable ones will last a while as long as you keep them clean. I usually go through two pairs of disposable foam plugs a month and I keep them in a small cardboard box when I’m not wearing them. Film canisters work well for storing earplugs, too.

  8. BT says:

    I use noise canceling canal phones (Sennheiser CX-300) with my MP3 player (with the wire run under my shirt to keep it out of machinery). You get hearing protection and music in one shot. Works great for most of what I do. When I’m doing something really noisy I put earmuffs over them (same ones pictured in the article, very comfortable and work great). For any audiophiles out there, the Sennheiser CX-300 outperforms the Shure E2c, at least to my ears.

  9. Dano says:

    I wear the foams ones to sleep. I can’t stand any noise. I wish I could wear them around the office to cut down on the air vent noises in the building.

  10. SouseMouse says:

    I’m another earplug weirdo. I always carry a pair of Elvex Quattro plugs. They’re the most comfortable plugs I’ve ever used, and they’re reusable. Since you don’t have to squash them with your fingers you don’t get whatever’s on your hands in your ear-holes.
    I’ve worn them in stores (those propane-powered floor buffers are loud), restaurants (I had a headache and people are loud), bars (the crappy music and people are loud), the cafeteria at work (people and TV are loud)… anywhere noise bothers me. I have a low tolerance for noise, and if I live to be an old fart I’m going to be saying “quit shouting” instead of “what”.

  11. Along the top of my workbench is a shelf with a half dozen pegs, where I have all sorts of “eyes and ears” hanging. It’s mostly out of the way, but obvious enough to serve as a helpful reminder when I walk into the shop.

    I prefer “cans” for general nuisance noise like compressed air and occasional grinding work, because they don’t take any time to don or doff, and don’t require clean hands to do so. My favorite pair is a folding set that nestles against each other when stowed in a toolbox, so they stay reasonably clean. (Keeping them in a bag is a good idea anyway, and if you sew yourself a bag from a big microfiber cloth, you can turn it inside-out and use the clean surface to wipe off your glasses.)

    For prolonged or more serious noise exposure like shooting or hammerdrill work, I’ll wear some canal plugs under the cans. The typical foam plugs are uncomfortably stiff, but I recently found some ultra-soft ones that advertise the same NRR, and frankly even if they’re not as good, wearing them is better than not wearing the stuff ones. (I’ll post a brand name when I find ’em..)

    Also worth a look (or a listen!) are the rubber plugs that look like a pagoda, or a succession of mushrooms. A little research reveals that they’re called “flanged earplugs”. Like cans, they go in instantly and don’t require clean fingers, but like foam plugs they’re pocket-sized and cheap. I don’t use them much because they’re a bit uncomfortable, but I keep a pair in my toolbag just in case.

    There’s an impressive selection at The Earplug Store: http://earplugstore.stores.yahoo.net/

    For the geeky: Peltor makes some (very expensive!) electronic headset hearing protectors that include Bluetooth transceivers, so you can pair ’em to your phone, music player, laptop, or whatever. Even cooler is the adapter that makes your two-way radio speak Bluetooth, so you can skip the annoying headset cord. I haven’t had a chance to test them out, but I’m so glad someone finally put these two good ideas together.

  12. Chris K says:

    I’m in the noise-cancelling headphones all the time camp. Music player in left front pocket, cord routed through back of shirt, and plugs over the shoulders on each side hanging down in front. Left one in 16 hours a day with volume on its very minimum, hanging halfway out of the ear, and the right one is still right there to put in with just a second’s notice. When mowing the lawn or doing anything else loud, I double up with the cans you get at the gun store… Oh, and since it’s not practical to have cans when out actually hunting, I can be found sitting in a tree with headphones partly in!

  13. Yuppers says:

    These look promising. I’ve been wanting to try them out.


    They allow you to hear regular voices/sounds but they basically gate everything above 80 db per their claims. No electronics.

  14. Yuppers says:

    Sonic Defenders™ protect your hearing—without interfering with your ability to hear routine sounds and conversation. Safe sound levels are allowed to pass through, while potentially harmful noises (above 80dB) are reduced via a proprietary design that incorporates the patented Hocks Noise Braker filter. When even more hearing protection is required—without the need to hear routine sounds or conversations—Sonic Defenders’ attached stopper can be inserted. Made from a soft, hypoallergenic polymer and ergonomically shaped for a great fit, Sonic Defenders can be worn comfortably all day. And their low-profile design means they can be worn while wearing a helmet, mask, hat, or while using a phone, headset, or supplemental ear muffs.

    ALSO – http://www.surefire.com/pdfs/EP3_tech_copy.pdf

  15. Whoah, neat. Part of me wants to call BS and part of me wants to get a pair of those to try out. The “tech” PDF is sure light on technical details! I wonder if the patents tell the full story.

    I have a set of shooter’s earplugs, which are for impulse noise only — they only work on a single positive pressure front. The diaphragm relies on a pressure difference to seal itself, so sustained loud noise won’t activate the mechanism. They’re good for shooting and not much else.

    Incodentally, the super-soft foam plugs are Hearos brand, and I think I got them at Rockler.

  16. The pdf on the Surefires makes some sense and I can see how its construction would be somewhat effective at decreasing the intensity of sound waves.

    I can’t seem to find info as to whether or not it is OSHA approved or otherwise.

    Here’s a nice flash animation about how the Hocks barrier is supposed to work.

  17. The diagram and animation explain how incoming sound would be attenuated, yes. What they fail to explain or even mention is how the amount of attenuation would vary based on the intensity of the sound. I’d expect to see non-Newtonian fluids or something being used to create such a variable response, but they don’t claim to be using any such techniques.

    The more time I spend looking into this, the worse it all smells. It’s just a stepped canal whose miraculous properties were only measured by its eponymous designer? No patents, no papers, nothing like an explanation? I’m calling it pseudoscience until I hear otherwise.

  18. I don’t think that the “Hocks barrier” was designed to attenuate the noise to the degree that was observed. I think that it’s more likely that they developed the plug and then sent it out for testing. It’s more like “this is what we made, and this is what we’re told it does.”

    On the Hock page, their “test data” consisted of two correspondences from research labs with a few comments and numbers. One of those letters showed the attentuation rate coupled with the input sound, and that could be where the NRR claims originate.

    I’m hesitant to call BS because the plugs seems to be based off a (forgive the pun) sound principle. On the other hand, where’s the 3rd party stamp of approval, and why hadn’t larger companies (aside from Surefire) pick up on the idea…

  19. Lily Sanchez says:

    The science games piece is absolutely the very best i’ve read today.

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