Imagine sending a friend to the store to purchase shoes for you, with the following instructions: "Any size, any shape, any style…doesn't really matter!" Many people approach the selection of an earplug with the same attitude. The prevailing assumption is that "anything in my ear will protect my hearing—it doesn't really matter." In reality, ear canals come in different sizes and shapes, affecting fit, protection levels, and comfort. A worksite that offers only one size or style of earplug sabotages its own hearing conservation efforts.
One of the real benefits of offering a variety of hearing protection sizes and styles is the fact that it can generally be accomplished with little or no increase in cost. Whether a worksite offers 1,000 earplugs of one style or 250 earplugs of four different styles, the cost would be quite similar. However, the wider variety will go far in providing a better fit for more ears and protecting significantly more of the workers.
Watch The "4 Steps That Help Protect Your Workers' Hearing" Video Below
Earplug Selection Tips
Like a cork in a bottle, an earplug that is too large or too small will never achieve an acoustic seal. Have someone look into your ear canal opening to determine if a different size would be helpful. Yes, earplugs do come in different sizes, and there is no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" earplug.
In addition to different diameters, ear canals come in different shapes too. While many ear canals are round (well fitted with a pre-molded earplug), many have a distinct oval shape (or even a slit opening) best fitted with an expandable foam earplug.
3) EASE OF INSERTION
Some workers have difficulty rolling or inserting foam earplugs due to restricted dexterity, arthritis, or because they are wearing gloves. Try a no-roll foam or reusable earplug. An earplug with a stem may also be easier for some workers to insert.
4) OTHER FACTORS
In addition to size, shape, and ease of insertion, there are many other options available in earplugs that factor into proper selection:
- Single-use or reusable
- Push-in foam
- Detectable earplugs (for food service industry)
- Uniform attenuation across frequencies (affecting speech clarity)
One significant feature of earplugs that is not a good selection factor is the published attenuation rating of an earplug (Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR): it can be quite deceptive in selecting proper protection. The NRR is a laboratory-based estimate of the amount of protection potentially achieved ONLY when the earplug is properly sized and properly fitted.
Earplug Fitting Tips
1) ROLL (applies to roll-down earplugs only)
- For roll-down foam earplugs, start rolling the foam gently to avoid creases. Then roll as hard as you can to make the cylinder as small as possible.
- Rolling the earplug into a tight cylinder makes it easier to fit around the bends in the ear canal.
- After rolling, move quickly to the next step so that the earplug doesn’t expand before insertion.
2) PULL (applies to all earplugs)
- Reach over the head to pull OUT (or for some people, pull UP or BACK) on the ear flap, called the pinna.
- Observe the worker’s ear: Which direction opens the ear canal the most? Give feedback to the worker about which pull-direction is most effective. For many people, pulling OUT away from the head is most effective in spreading open the ear canal for a better earplug fit.
3) INSERT (applies to all earplugs)
- Insert the earplug far enough so that it goes around bends in the ear canal. This often feels sensitive (not painful) or may trigger a cough reflex; This is normal.
- Let go of the pulled-back ear after the earplug is fully inserted.
- For foam earplugs, hold the earplug in place for a few seconds while the foam expands to fill the ear canal.
- For removal, it’s often easier to use the same EAR-PULL technique that was used for insertion.
Noise-induced hearing loss is fully preventable with proper training and protection. Site managers are often responsible for mandating hearing protection and, as with any PPE, it’s important to communicate with your crew to ensure compliance.
Watch Honeywell's "Hearing Conservation" Video Below
Tips for Protecting Workers’ Hearing
1) Be mindful of communication needs among workers and provide them with comfortable, convenient, and compatible hearing protection solutions.
2) Educate teams on site-specific noise hazards, invite safety specialists to speak on hearing protection, and encourage compliance through positive incentives.
3) Hold free training classes on hearing protection and how to achieve a reliable, comfortable fit, and encourage peer-to-peer support for using protective devices.