McMaster University

McMaster University

Hearing Protective Devices

Intended Audience

This information is intended for those departments who have already undergone a noise survey and are implementing the recommendations in consultation with EOHSS (or FHSSO if in the Faculty of Health Sciences). All personnel engaged in a hearing gprotection plan, must have already:

  • completed Noise Awareness training on Mosaic (NSAWR)
  • read and understood the RMM 403 Noise Control and Hearing Program
  • reviewed the noise survey results with their supervisor.
If you have concerns about noise in your work area that have not been assessed, please speak with your Supervisor who can contact EOHSS/FHSSO for follow up.

Important Message

As each specific make and model of hearing protection device may have different manufacturer's instructions, this information is for basic awareness purposes only. You must consult the user guide specific to your product. This webpage provides awareness for:

  • the types of hearing protection
  • proper fitting
  • limitations
  • care and use (cleaning, disinfection, storage, inspection and maintenance)
  • use (donning, doffing and disposal)

What is Hearing Protection?

Hearing protection are pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) that you wear in or over your ears to protect yourself from noise hazards.
Noise, above certain decibels, can damage the structures of your inner ears and cause permanent hearing loss. This is called Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).
NIHL is 100% preventable. In Canada, May is Speech and Hearing Month.

Risk Management Manual 403

Risk Management Manuals are safety documents which make up our Risk Management System to control hazards related to occupational health and safety. They outline key responsibilities for implementing the program locally and the minimum standards which are required to be met.
RMM 403 is the Noise Control and Hearing Program. It identifies responsibilities for different parties in the workplace to control noise and protect workers.
It also identifies the requirements which trigger the need to create a local hearing protection plan.

Identification of Sources of Exposure

By this point, the sources of noise hazard would have been identified by workers and management, the assessment would have been carried out, the noise levels established and the selection of the appropriate hearing protection selected based on results of the assessment.
If noise level changes due to a change in equipment or procedure, notify your supervisor immediately so they may follow up with EOHSS/FHSSO to repeat the assessment.
The exposure limit is 85dBA, the action limit 80dBA ie when investigation is triggered.

Estimate Noise Levels

There are two ways in which you can do quick estimates of noise levels. You can compare to known noises or you can use an App on your cell phone. Any estimate 80 or above is to be reported to your Supervisor to initiate a noise level assessment for your area.

Personal Protective Equipment

Depending on the noise levels assessed, your supervisor has assigned you one or more of the three types of hearing protection:
Earplugs are inserted in the ear canal. They may be premolded (preformed), moldable, rolldown foam, push-to-fit, or custom molded. Disposable, reusable and custom earplugs are available.
Semi-insert earplugs which consist of conical tips inserted slightly into the ear canal. Canal caps are a variation where the plugs are rounded and cover the entrance to the ear canal. Both are held in place by a rigid headband.
Earmuffs consist of sound-attenuating material and soft ear cushions that fit around the ear and hard outer cups. They are held together by a head band.

Foam Ear Plugs - Overview

Foam earplugs have many benefits. They are disposable, affordable and give a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 27-33 dBA.
Foam earplugs are very comfortable and come in many colours. They also come in many different shapes, however it is recommended to use a straight, cylindrical shaped foam earplug such as 3M Classic.
Foam earplugs also come corded and in no-roll formats as well. However, these are more expensive.
Tapered and flared ends can interfere with an even 'roll down' causing an improper fit.
Although an NRR is given, foam earplugs are only effective if they are fitted and used properly.
Foam earplugs do not interfere with any other type of PPE and you can use them with glasses and under hats or hoods.

Foam Ear Plugs - Hand Hygiene

It is extremely important to ensure that your hands are clean when using foam earplugs.
Bacteria and debris on your hands will be transferred to the foam earplug when you are rolling it down.
The bacteria and debris will then be transferred to your ear canal upon insertion, which may lead to an ear infection.

Foam Ear Plugs - Use

Roll the plug between your fingers SLOWLY and FIRMLY.
Do not create creases, these become channels through which sound can enter your ear, reducing the effectiveness of the plugs.
As you make the plug thinner, roll harder and harder.
When the plug is compact and very thin, reach around your head, grab the top of your year and pull UP and OUT, opening your ear canal.
Push the thin cylinder into your ear canal and hold for 10 to 30 seconds to allow the plug to expand and fit the shape of your ear canal.
It feels strange at first, like using a Qtip, but it should not be painful.
When complete, look at yourself in the mirror, should not not be able to see the plugs at all from the front. You have to turn to the side to see them.

Foam Ear Plugs - Test Your Fit

Go to a busy, noisy area.
Cover your plugged ears, then uncover your plugged ears. 
If you can't tell the difference, or you can just barely tell the difference, you have a good fit and you have inserted the plug correctly.
If you can tell the difference easily, the plug is not prepared or inserted correctly.  You have to remove the plug and start again.

Foam Ear Plugs - Removal

Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the foam end.
Using a pulling and circular motion, like stirring, not twisting, gently break the seal. The plug will loosen and will be free to pull out gently.
NEVER pull hard or quickly, although the material is foam, it will still form somewhat of a seal and pulling hard or quick will be painful and damage your eardrums.

If you cannot grasp the ear plug, do not panic. The plug will not move, there is no harm.
Notify your Supervisor of your difficulty.
Contact your local first aider.
The first aider shall be able to remove the ear plug using sterile forceps, by grasping the end of the ear plug and using a circular motion, slowly remove the plug.

Foam Ear Plugs - Care

Foam earplugs should be wiped with a clean cloth wet with warm water and left to air dry. Store in a protective container. It should go back to its original shape when compressed. Discard when it does not go back to its original shape or is unhygienic.
Earplugs should be stored in a cool, dry environment, away from heat and humidity.
Bulk containers of unwrapped earplugs should be handled with care. In order to keep the stock of earplugs sterile/clean, open the container, tip and tap out two earplugs. Do not reach into the container. If the container is large, use a clean set for forceps to grab the earplugs.
If you are provided containers of wrapped earplugs, only take plugs that you will use immediately. Do not store them in your pockets.
Foam earplugs do not have an expiry date, however if left long enough they will become too firm and not roll down well. If you detect a 'stale' earplug in the batch, discard the entire batch and purchase new.

Foam Ear Plugs - Limitations

Foam earplugs do have some limitations.
Rolling and proper insertion must be done precisely, otherwise they will not give the full NRR listed.
Lack of hand hygiene can lead to ear infections.
They are not quickly removed and re-inserted, for example if you need to take them out for a few minutes to talk to a colleague.
When inserted correctly, others may not know you have earplugs in and will not be aware that you have lowered hearing.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Overview

Reusable earplugs are washable, polymer based plugs which are flanged for easy insertion and effective canal seal.
They are no-roll and stemmed, thus reducing the need to touch the parts that will be inside the ear canal.
They also come with various features and sizes.
They are long lasting and can be worn with other PPE such as eye, face and head protection.
They can be used with ear muffs.
They can be used with gloves or dirty hands.
They insert and remove quickly.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Hand Hygiene

Although reusable earplugs have a stem, it is always recommended to wash your hands before inserting earplugs of any type.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Use

Inspect the silicone earplug for any damage.
Reach around your head, grab the top of your year and pull UP and OUT, opening your ear canal.
Push the silicone earplug into your ear canal using a slight circular motion.
This process should should not be painful.
Since these are not molded to your ear canal, a variable amount of stem and flange may protrude form the ear canal. You must test your fit to determine if the seal is complete.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Fit Test

Go to a busy, noisy area.
Tug the stem slightly. If you feel resistance, move to the next test.
Push and pull the stem slightly. If you feel pressure variations in your ear, move on to the next test.
In a noisy area or with white noise playing, cover your ears. If there is only a slight difference in the volume, move onto the next test.
Listen to your voice. It should sound hollow and boomy.
If all tests are passed, you have a good fit.
If you did not experience the expect result for any test, remove the earplug and re-insert and re-test the fit.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Removal

Reusable earplugs should be removed carefully.
Grasp the stem, and with a gentle circular motion, break the seal and pull the earplug out.
Do not pull the earplug out fast. This will cause increased pressure and pain.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Care

Reusable earplugs are meant to be washed. Wash the earplugs in warm water with a mild detergent.
Rinse thoroughly and allow to air dry. Do not use solvents such as alcohol.
Once dry, place the earplugs in a protective storage container to protect from dust.

Reusable Ear Plugs - Limitations

As these plugs are not foam, they do not conform to the shape of your ear canal, therefore they do not give a good a fit as foam earplugs.
They have a lower NRR compared to foam earplugs.
Require diligence for cleaning and care.
If they are not labeled, a user can take someone else's plugs by mistake.

Semi-insert Ear Plugs or Canal Caps - Overview

Semi-insert earplugs or canal caps are an intermediate between earplugs and ear muffs. They consist of replaceable plugs/caps that affix to a headband.
The replaceable tips may be disposable or reusable.
A semi-insert earplug will have a conical tip and sit inside the ear canal, whereas a canal cap will have rounded heads that cover the entrance to the ear canal.
These earplugs have lower NRR ratings versus foam earplugs.
The foam inserts do not require rolling. The inserts are pushed in place by the pressure of the headband.

Semi-Insert Ear Plugs or Canal Caps - Hand Hygiene

Although reusable earplugs have a stem, it is always recommended to wash your hands before inserting earplugs of any type.

Semi-Insert Ear Plugs or Canal Caps - Use

As with any product, follow the manufacturer's instructions for use.
Inspect the band and ensure the tips are seated firmly.
Place the tips in your ear canal and touching the band, push in and around slightly to get a good fit.
The band should be under your chin or behind your neck but not over or behind your head. Follow the manufacturer's directions for use.
If the tips are on a swivel head, you can use more movements to achieve a good fit.

Semi-Insert Ear Plugs or Canal Caps - Fit Test

Go to a busy, noisy area.
Slightly push on your earplugs / caps. If the noise is difference is significant on this gentle push, readjust your earplugs / caps.
If you cannot discern a noise change or the noise change is very small, you have achieved a good fit.

Semi-Insert Ear Plugs or Canal Caps - Removal

Removal is simply by grasping the band and gently pulling the earplugs or caps out or away from your ear canal.
The band can sit around your neck until the end of your shift.

Semi-Insert Ear Plugs or Canal Caps - Care

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for care.
Foam tips are to be wiped with a clean cloth wet with warm water, then left to air dry. Discard when it does not come back to its original shape when compressed or unhygienic.
Silicone tips are to be removed from the band, washed in warm water with mild soap and left to air dry. Once dried tips, are to be stored in a protective container.

Semi-Insert Ear Plugs of Canal Caps - Limitations

These types of hearing protection have a lower NRR compared.
Sometimes difficult to achieve a good fit, with push-to-fit foam tips.

Ear Muff Style - Overview

Ear muff style hearing protection is a comfortable, reusable piece of equipment which is often similar in protection as foam earplugs.
Ear muffs are easier to correctly don compared to foam ear plugs and therefore provide more consistent protection among users. One size fits most.
They are easier to fit, generally more durable than plugs, and they have replaceable parts.
Easily seen at a distance to assist in the monitoring of their use, they are not easily lost and may be worn with minor ear infections.

Ear Muff Style - Hand Hygiene

Although it is not necessary to have clean hands while handling ear muff style hearing protection, it is always recommended to wash hands before donning and after doffing PPE.

Ear Muff Style - Use

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for donning and fitting.
Remove any jewelry, head wear, face wear and eye wear that could impact the seal of the cup around the ear and to the skin.
Smooth hair back away from ears.
Open/extend the ear muffs per directions.
Put on crown of head and ensure all parts of ear are within the cup.
Adjust the band to ensure it fits snugly on top and at the sides. Ensure that the cushions exert equal pressure around the ears.
Adjust the height of both cups for comfort and a good seal – do this by sliding the cup up or down while holding the headband in place.

Ear Muff Style - Fit Test

Go to a busy, noisy area.
Slightly push on your seated ear muff cups. If the noise is difference is significant on this gentle push, readjust your cups.
If you cannot discern a noise change or the noise change is very small, you have achieved a good fit.

Ear Muff Style - Removal

Pull the cups away from your ears carefully and pull the headband off.
Inspect the ear muffs for damage or soilage.
Clean ear muffs as necessary.
Fold the ear muffs for storage as per the make and model of your ear muffs.

Ear Muff Style - Care

Inspect pads and acoustical foam each time before use.
Replace pads when they become compressed, hard or damaged. Replacement parts come in a 'hygiene kit' which consists of one set of pads and one set of acoustical foam discs. Follow manufacturer's instructions for pad replacement.
Wash with a damp cloth, wet with mild soap and warm water. Do not immerse in water. Only wipe the cups, bands and ear pads. Do not wipe the acoustical foam.
Store in a cool dry environment, protected from dust accumulation.

Ear Muff Style - Limitations

In order to be effective, they require regular maintenance and must cover the entire ear.
The cushions and pads must be replaced regularly according to manufacturer's specifications.
For this type of hearing protection, it may be hard to get a good fit.
The headband may not be comfortable to some. The tightness of the headband and weight of the equipment may be a deterrent to consistent use.
Hair, head wear and other PPE can interfere with function. Any type of glasses can interfere wit the seal if the arms/temples of the glasses are thick and/or do not sit directly on the skin at the temples.
More uncomfortable in hot, humid work area compared to foam earplugs.

Remaining Expectations

All supervisors must provide the manufacturer information for the hearing protective devices they provide to their workers.
Users and supervisors are to read and understand manufacturer's instructions for use and care, limitations and maintenance of the device.
Supervisors must ensure users are using the equipment properly by practicing in a safe environment.


Updated 2021-11-09


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