3M Hearing Protection Selection

Hearing Protection Selection

  • Selecting hearing protectors for your employees from the hundreds of different types, styles, shapes and sizes of devices can be a challenge. 3M can help.

Types of Noise Reduction

  • Hearing Protection Types

    Conventional attenuation
    The noise reduction provided by conventional attenuation devices is the same regardless of the level of the noise. These are designed to provide the employee with a consistent amount of attenuation throughout the work day.

    Level-Dependent attenuation
    The noise reduction provided by level-dependent hearing protectors varies with the level of the noise. This type of protector provides more noise reduction at high noise levels and is particularly effective for:

    • Variable noise conditions:  Helps make it easier for workers to maintain situational awareness without having to remove their hearing protectors.
    • Impulse noises:  Very short, loud sounds such as the blast of an arc flash or the bang of a pneumatic nail gun. To learn more about hearing protection for impulse noise, read 3M Technical Data Bulletin #234 (PDF, 266.82 KB).

    Level-dependent HPDs may be non-electronic (passive) or electronic (active). Electronic level-dependent HPDs feature environmental microphones to pick up low level sounds. The wearer can adjust the volume of the incoming sounds for their preferred listening level. 

    Uniform attenuation
    Low frequency sounds (bass) are reduced by about the same amount as high frequency sounds (treble) for a more natural sound quality.  Originally designed for musicians, these can also be used in occupational hearing conservation.  Most uniform attenuation HPDs provide lower noise reduction overall and may be a good choice for employees with lower noise exposures.

Selecting Hearing Protection

If hearing protectors aren’t comfortable, easy to use, or they interfere excessively with the ability of workers to hear, the percentage of time that employees wear hearing protection, known as wear time, may decrease. Even the best hearing protectors aren’t as likely to be used if they aren’t convenient and compatible with the work being done and the clothing & other PPE being worn. Workers not only need to be protected from hazardous loud sounds, but they also often need to be able to hear and communicate on the job.

1. Consider comfort first

  • The pressure you feel when wearing earplugs varies depending on the material and the size of the earplug relative to the size of your ear canal. With earmuffs, the pressure of the headband to hold the ear cups firmly in place is essential to good attenuation. However, if the pressure is excessive in either case, it can make wearing the hearing protector uncomfortable. Before deciding which type of hearing protector to choose, workers may need to wear one or more different models for an extended time.
  • Provide several sizes of earplugs to make it easier for wearers to find the size that fits tightly enough to protect but not so tight to be uncomfortable. Aside from the comfort advantage, it’s important to have multiple sizes to make sure workers can achieve an effective seal easily. For people with small ears, for example, a small earplug may be easier to insert into the ear canal after it is rolled down.
  • When earplugs are reinserted or a new pair of earplugs is inserted into the ear several times per day, the softness of the ear plug in the ear canal may become an important factor. 3M's family of 3M™ E-A-Rsoft™ earplugs are made of polyurethane foam which is softer to the touch than other types of foam.
  • Weight can also be a criterion for selecting earmuffs. Since higher attenuation earmuffs often feature larger, somewhat heavier ear cups, there may be a comfort trade-off for selecting muffs with higher noise reduction ratings. Choosing a lighter earmuff may not only allow you to hear important sounds more easily, but may also seem more comfortable, allowing workers to leave them on for the full time they are exposed to noise. Banded earplugs are also a lighter weight alternative to earmuffs.
  • In hot, humid environments, earmuffs may not be comfortable for more than a few minutes. Conversely, earmuffs might be preferred by workers in cold, windy conditions. Lightweight alternatives such as banded HPDs and washable, reusable earplugs are also available to help maximize comfort and maintain good hygiene. 3M™ E-A-R™ Classic™ earplugs, in particular, are made of PVC foam that resists moisture absorption, such as might occur with sweat in hot and humid conditions.

2. Factor in ease of use

  • When hands are dirty or employees wear gloves, reusable & push-to-fit earplugs, with their convenient stems or handles, help make it possible to keep the tips of the earplugs clean during use. Since these earplugs don’t need to be rolled down before insertion, the tips of the earplugs are less likely to get dirty.
  • Workers who need to put their hearing protection on in a hurry or who take off and put on hearing protection many times every day may also appreciate push-to-fit style earplugs that are “ready to wear” and banded hearing protectors that are quick and easy to put on.

    Helmet-mounted earmuffs and 3M’s unique Cord Control System (CCS), which allows workers to keep their earplugs conveniently connected to their safety glasses, can also make it easier to comply with hearing protection policies, especially for people who are repeatedly removing and reusing their hearing protection.

  • When hearing protection is only needed occasionally, offer earplugs with a compact storage case to help keep the earplugs clean in between uses. Refillable earplug dispensers are also an option to make sure HPDs are available whenever and wherever they are needed.
  • Employees who wear hearing protection may also need to wear other types of protection, such as respiratory, eye, face and head protection. Plan for how these different types of PPE will work together and evaluate the selections, to be sure that the required performance of one type of PPE is not compromised by use of another. Adapters to allow earmuffs to attach to hard hats and face shields can be a way to minimize this issue in many cases. When adapters aren’t available or practical, earmuffs with a neck band are a convenient alternative along with banded hearing protectors. Note that interference with the seal of conventional over-the-head earmuffs, such as from safety eyewear, head wear (such as baseball caps or bandanas), or other items might result in several dB loss of attenuation – so ear plugs should also be considered, whether as an alternative or an addition to the ear muffs.

    Compatibility with the work being done is also critical. In dirty, dusty situations, washable reusable earplugs may be preferred. In the food industry, metal-detectable earplugs are sometimes required to help employers prevent contamination from earplugs and cords.

3. Address Communication Needs

See 3M PELTOR Protective Communication Products

  • Some employees may worry that they won’t be able to hear when they wearing hearing protection. While it’s true that HPD wearers won’t hear as much as they did without hearing protection, in most cases, people with normal hearing will be able to hear well enough with hearing protection if:

    • the HDPs selected have an appropriate amount of noise reduction for the exposure, and
    • they are worn according to the user instructions

    For very noisy situations, hearing protectors may allow you to listen at a more comfortable level, much like sun glasses help you see more clearly on a bright sunny day.

  • When workplace noise reaches 90 dBA and higher, we must shout at each other to communicate. With no hearing protection, your ears cannot easily process the shouting and the noise and the ability to accurately hear conversation is reduced. Your ears are, literally, overloaded with sound. On top of that, you may be experiencing temporary hearing loss, adding to the problem.

    This is like going to the beach without sun glasses. Your eyes are overloaded with light making it difficult to see clearly.

  • When you wear hearing protection, very loud sounds are reduced to a more comfortable level. At this level, your ears are able to process the noise, conversation and important warning sounds more normally with less distortion.

    This is like wearing sun glasses at the beach. The shaded lenses bring the light down to a level where your eyes are able to process what you are seeing with less distortion.

  • However, wearing high attenuation hearing protectors in low-noise situations (below 85 dBA for example) may result in overprotection and cause an undesirable reduction in ability to hear and communicate.

    This is similar to wearing dark sunglasses after sundown or on a cloudy day. When the light is at much lower levels, the addition of sunglasses results in overprotection and may make it more difficult to see.

    With hearing protection, it comes down to balancing attenuation and situational awareness—the ability to hear what’s going on in the workplace. Level-dependent hearing protectors can help employees who report difficulty detecting important sounds and communicating while wearing HPDs. For those who need to communicate by radio or phone, hearing protectors that connect to external two-way radios, those with built-in radios, and units that pair up to wireless devices make it possible to stay connected and protected at the same time.

Hearing Protection Types

In the Ear

  • 3M Disposable Foam Earplugs
    Disposable foam earplugs

    The most widely used type of HPD. The soft foam is rolled into a tiny cylinder then inserted into the ear.

    • Comfortable: Conforms to the unique shape of ear canal
    • Affordable:  Low price per pair
    • Effective:  High noise reduction when worn correctly.
  • 3M Push-to-Fit Earplugs
    Push-to-Fit earplugs

    Soft foam tips with a flexible stem. No need to roll the foam tips before inserting into the ears

    • Easy to use:  Works well for employees who have difficulty rolling and inserting disposable foam earplugs
    • Convenient: Can be used when hands are dirty or when wearing gloves.
    • Comfortable: Soft foam conforms to the unique shape of ear canal
  • 3M Reusable earplugs
    Reusable earplugs

    Washable earplugs with flexible, elastic flanges attached to a stem.

    • Less waste: Can be reused many times
    • Cost effective: Replaced less often for lower cost long term
    • Convenient: Can be used when hands are dirty or when wearing gloves
    • Versatile: Material doesn’t absorb moisture. Works well in wet conditions or when employees perspire heavily
    • Moderate attenuation: Allows wearer to hear more sound when high Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is not needed
  • 3M Custom-molded earplugs
    Custom-molded earplugs

    Durable, soft material molded into the unique shape of the wearer’s ears.

    • Less waste: Can be reused for long periods of time
    • Comfortable: Fits the wearer’s ears exactly when made properly
    • Versatile: Noise reduction can be customized during manufacturing process

Over the Ear

  • 3M PELTOR Earmuffs

    Plastic cups attached to an adjustable headband cover the ears to help block out sound. Soft, cushions seal against the side of the wearer’s head.

    • Easy to Use: Most people learn to properly use them with little difficulty
    • Convenient: Quickly put on and take off hearing protection as needed
    • Alternative to earplugs: Some people prefer not to, or are unable to, wear earplugs
  • 3M Banded Hearing Protectors
    Banded hearing protectors

    Soft foam or elastic tips held in place by a flexible band.

    • Convenient: Quickly put on and take off hearing protection as needed. Good choice for people who move in and out of noise
    • Versatile: Wide variety of headband styles and types of ear tips
    • Moderate attenuation:  Allows wearer to hear more sound when a high Noise Reduction Rating NRR is not needed 

Workers with hearing loss

In some cases, level-dependent hearing protectors can help provide workers with hearing loss better situational awareness and help them work safely in noise while wearing hearing protection.

Some resources to learn more about hearing protection options for workers with hearing loss:

  • IMPORTANT NOTE: This information is based on selected current national requirements. Other country or local requirements may be different. Always consult User Instructions and follow local laws and regulations. This website contains an overview of general information and should not be relied upon to make specific decisions. Reading this information does not certify proficiency in safety and health. Information is current as of the date of publication, and requirements can change in the future. This information should not be relied upon in isolation, as the content is often accompanied by additional and/or clarifying information. All applicable laws and regulations must be followed.