There’s more to using hearing protectors than simply ordering a box of earplugs and setting them out in the break room or nurse’s office. Let’s review four steps that you need to take in order to make your use of hearing protection as safe and effective as possible.

1. Test your work area

The first step should be to perform sound level monitoring to check for hazardous noise levels. You can’t possibly know how to protect your workers until you know what types of noise you’re protecting them from — and the areas where noise reaches the most dangerous levels.

Tests should not only measure the total amplitude of decibels, but also the specific frequencies of noise. The best way to determine the frequency of noise from various equipment is to use an “octave band analyzer.” Monitoring frequencies can be useful because some hearing protectors with lower NRRs (Noise Reduction Ratings) actually work better at certain frequencies.

You also need to discern if noise is continuous, intermittent, or impulse.

2. Select the right protection

Your best course of action may be to provide employees with a variety of products in many different sizes. People have different size ear canals, so one size does not always work for everyone. Get input from your workers on which products feel the best. Remember, nobody will wear a hearing protector that isn’t comfortable, and the only way to predict comfort is to let your workers try out the product.

Here are some common types of hearing protection:

Disposable foam plugs expand and conform to the shape of your ear. Simply roll the plug into a smooth tube thin enough to fit halfway into your ear canal. Workers in particularly dusty or dirty environments should be sure that their hands are clean when doing this.

Premolded reusable earplugs are constructed of silicone, rubber, or plastic. Many are available in different sizes to fit every ear canal.

These types of plugs are inexpensive, reusable, washable, and convenient to carry. They may also be a better option for workers in dusty or dirty environments because the plug can be inserted without having to handle the tip of the plug.

Canal caps or hearing bands are basically earplugs connected to a plastic band. The bands are available in several different styles that can be worn behind the neck or under the chin.

Workers can hang the band around their neck when it’s quiet and insert the plugs when the noise starts up. These bands are also a good idea for workers who are in and out of hazardous areas throughout the day.

Sometimes the pressure from the bands can get uncomfortable, though. And some tips on canal caps may not effectively block all types of noise. Experiment with different bands to find the best one for each user.

Earmuffs block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Muffs come in several different styles including “low profile” with smaller ear cups or “high profile” with large ear cups for extremely noisy situations. Get a good seal around the ear to get the most out of earmuffs.

It’s important to remind workers that audio headphones are not a form of hearing protection. There are muffs on the market now equipped with radios that allow workers to listen to music at safe levels while also protecting their hearing from external noise.

3. Train employees

Training should be a vital part of your hearing protection program. Employees need to know how and why noise affects their hearing. Since many employees don’t realize the level of noise they are routinely exposed to, show them printouts of personal or noise area monitoring. This might help convince long-time employees, who have become acclimated to the harmful noise around them, to wear hearing protection.

4. Don't forget to follow up

Finally, after your program is in place, follow up with employees to be sure that they’re using their hearing protection properly. Protectors not used correctly, or taken on and off throughout the day, won’t be as effective at reducing noise levels. This could damage employees’ hearing. It’s also important to provide continuing education and refresher courses to keep your employees aware of any new products that may be more effective than what they are currently using.