On certain jobs, electricians can find themselves in an environment where the noise level exceeds the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) time-weighted average limit of 90 decibels. A noise level of 90 decibels is approximately that of a lawn mower or subway train. When exposed to that amount of noise for eight hours, or higher levels for even a shorter duration, hearing protection must be worn to reduce the noise level. The types usually worn by electricians are the earplugs or muffs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates hearing protectors. The rating is posted on the container, the device or both. The rating is called the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). It applies to earplugs and earmuffs. Experts believe that due to workplace conditions and the failure of users to wear protectors properly, the effectiveness can be reduced by 50 to 68 percent. Keep this in mind when selecting a hearing protector.

Earplugs are used to block the hazardous noise at the ear canal. There are many types of earplugs: triple flange, single flange, silicone and foam. There are also special earplugs that are molded to your ear. These are the most comfortable and will last a lifetime. Order them from an audiologist.

Triple- and single-flange plugs are preformed earplugs shaped like umbrellas. Single-flange plugs have a tab that rests against hollow part of the outer ear around the opening of the ear canal. The third flange of the triple-flange plug should block the opening of the ear canal.

Preformed plugs come in several sizes. During fitting, a trial plug or an ear gauge may be used to determine the proper size for you. Some individuals need a different size plug for each ear.

Foam and silicone plugs are hand formed. The user tapers the end of a silicone plug and inserts it in the canal. The excess material is pressed into the surrounding space. A foam earplug is compressed by rolling and inserted in the canal. It expands into place. Make sure to hold it in place for 20 to 30 seconds, so the expansion does not push it out. If the canal is large, the plug should be rolled in shape of a golf tee. This will help prevent inserting the plug too far.

If a minor ear infection, excessive ear wax or draining are present, earplugs can’t to be worn. Medical supervision is necessary for fitting to ensure a proper fit and identify any problems that would prevent their use.

Earmuffs are worn over the ear. Two cups, connected to a band, contact the ear directly and deflect noise. Material that has been inserted in the ear cup reduces noise. The ear cushion also reduces noise. Earmuffs are easy to put on and can be used when minor ear problems are present. Earmuffs are adjustable; one size will fit almost anyone.

The problem with earmuffs is size. They are bulky and may interfere with operations. In hot environments, they become uncomfortable. Metal head frames can not be used when working near high voltage. If the cups do not form a good seal because the suspension spring is bent or for any other reason, the protection is decreased.

Identify the front and back before putting them on. Make sure a proper seal occurs between the skin and cup. If necessary, tuck the ear inside the cup. Adjust the band so proper tension is placed between you skin and the cup. Eyeglasses with large temples should not be worn. An ear piece adapter is available for those who must wear eyeglasses with earmuffs, but make sure to perform a sound check to ensure a proper seal occurs between the cup and the skin.

Earmuffs should be cleaned regularly. Oil, perspiration, hair creams and environment break down the ear cup seals. Seals should be scrubbed gently using a soft brush, soap and warm water.

Do not get water or soap in the cup. If the inside of the cup does get wet, put it in a dry place for the moisture to evaporate. Replace ear cup seals that do not provide a good seal. Head bands are another source of poor seals and must be checked periodically. First, try to adjust the tension. If this does not correct the problem, replace the band.

Store earmuffs indoors away from moisture or chemicals. Ozone, a chemical produced by motors, generators and welding breaks down the foam material inside the ear cups. Earmuffs that are stored outdoors invite bees, wasps and spiders to make a home.

Either protector can provide the protection needed based on its NRR. Selection is more likely dependent on other factors. Comfort and compatibility with other equipment worn and the work environment are important.

Earmuffs are suitable for intermittent use; just be sure to match the NRR with the level of protection needed. Allow a safety margin for the work environment and effectiveness of the worker’s use of the device. Consult the manufacturer if you have any questions. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.