How to Choose the Right Hearing Protection for Construction Work

Both employers and workers should be all ears when it comes to advice about which hearing protection devices to wear on the job. 

Jackhammers, power drills, diesel engines — they all contribute to the common sounds of a construction site. But all that noise can be hard on the ears, causing irreversible damage if it’s loud enough and goes on long enough. A noise dosimeter can tell you if a worker’s hearing is a risk.

Remember that even if a worker isn’t using a loud piece of equipment himself, he could still suffer hearing loss if he’s working near someone who is.

Humans can sustain hearing damage when exposed to sounds of 85 decibels for eight hours. But raise that level to 100 decibels (a jackhammer produces 102 decibels) and damage can occur with as little as one hour per day of repeated exposures. So, wearing hearing protection when necessary is critical. It’s the employer’s job to supply it.

There are two basic types of ear protection: ear plugs and ear muffs. Both provide a reduction of 15 to 30 decibels if worn correctly.

Ear plugs

Ear plugs come in several styles: custom-molded, reusable, disposable roll-down foam and canal caps. Custom-molded are the most comfortable, though they aren’t any more effective except compared to disposable plugs that are inserted poorly. They’re an especially good choice for people with hard-to-fit ear canals (too big or small for disposable plugs).

Foam earplugs, on the other hand, are less expensive and also provide a comfortable fit.  But remember that since they’re disposable, you’ll have to buy them over and over again. Custom earplugs and reusable plugs are more expensive at first but may be just as economical (or more economical) over time.

Canal caps do not extend into the ear canal. They are easy to take in and out but provide less protection than insertable plugs. This type of ear protection might make sense for a supervisor who moves between a sound-insulated job trailer or office and the construction site frequently throughout the day.

Look for the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), which indicates by how many decibels the product can reduce noise.

Ear muffs

Ear muffs cover the entire ear and have a rubber strip that is supposed to provide a seal when the muffs are worn correctly. Unfortunately, hair and wearables like goggles or face protection can disrupt that seal. Ear muffs also take up more storage space and, like reusable ear plugs, must be cleaned regularly.

Ear muffs are more comfortable in colder climates but could make workers in hotter areas sweat, potentially compromising the seal. They are easy to put on and take off, providing a more convenient option for those who need ear protection only occasionally during the day.

Another factor to consider is whether the worker needs to wear a hard hat. Some hard hats have an accessory slot that can accommodate ear muffs. Otherwise, if you need to wear a hard hat, ear plugs will be the better choice.

The most effective hearing protection is a combination of ear plugs and ear muffs. Using both instead of one alone can provide an extra 5- to 10-decibel reduction in noise.