Woodworking, whether as an occasional relaxing hobby or a full-time profession, involves consistent loud noise that can permanently damage hearing over time. This article will review the basics of noise-induced hearing loss, the risk of using woodworking tools without hearing protection, the different types of woodworking ear protection available and how to choose one, as well as some examples of the best ear protection for woodworking and tips for maintaining them.
What Is Noise-induced Hearing Loss?
The hearing portion of the inner ear, or cochlea, is a fluid-filled organ. Sound travels through the ear canal and into the middle ear, where the ossicles push into a membrane leading to the inner ear and create a “traveling wave,” activating tiny hair cells tuned to specific frequencies. Noise exposure can cause damage to these hair cells, which unfortunately do not regenerate.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines guidelines for safe workplace environments, and noise exposure is one of their regulatory areas. The noise is measured by intensity (loudness) and frequency (pitch), and the amount of allowable exposure time is dependent on these factors. As you might imagine, extremely loud sounds have shorter exposure times, and work environments with louder noise typically mandate use of hearing protection. In other settings, the noise levels are not quite as intense and therefore hearing protection might be considered optional. OSHA also mandates regular hearing testing in certain settings to monitor any potential shifts in hearing thresholds.
While woodworking may not be your occupation, it is an activity that justifies awareness of the dangers of noise-induced hearing loss. It typically involves loud steady state noise that can be harmful to your hearing even for short periods of time.
Noise-induced hearing loss often has a very characteristic pattern of a “notch” 4000 Hz; this is the frequency at which the threshold is the poorest, and the hearing recovers somewhat at 6000 and 8000 Hz. Sometimes patients can have normal hearing with a mild hearing loss just at this one frequency, or in other cases this is simply the area where the hearing loss is most severe. Another factor commonly associated with noise-induced hearing loss is the presence of tinnitus. Use of hearing protection in noisy environments can help to prevent hearing loss from occurring or prevent it from becoming worse if it has already been initiated.
It is important to note that there are many factors that contribute to hearing loss in addition to noise, including age and genetics. There is no guarantee that regular use of hearing protection will prevent any degree of future hearing loss, but it is always beneficial to be on the safe side.
Can Woodworking Cause Noise-induced Hearing Loss?
Yes. You might think of harmful noise as loud impulse sounds such as gunshots, but loud steady-state noise typical in woodworking is just as, if not more, harmful because people often neglect to use hearing protection. Commonly used woodworking tools generate anywhere between 80 and 107 dB of noise, and sustained exposure to sound louder than 85 dB can cause noise-induced hearing loss. You can check published levels for the tools you will be using and select hearing protection accordingly.
What Are The Options For Hearing Protection? Pros And Cons
There are a few different options for hearing protection. The first are basic foam earplugs which are meant to expand and fit the user’s ear canal. While this style might seem like the simplest option, they need to be inserted properly in order to work. The foam earplugs should be rolled between your fingers and inserted deeply into the ear canal and then allowed to expand. If they are not put in deeply enough, they will not provide the prescribed level of attenuation. Another non-custom option for hearing protection is over-the-ear headphones or earmuffs.
These are probably easier to use properly but can be large and uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time. This design is more economically and environmentally friendly, though, as they can be worn repeatedly and by different people, whereas the foam inserts are typically single use. One disadvantage to both styles is that, while offering attenuation from the damaging noise, they may also prevent the user from hearing other sounds around them including the user’s own voice.
There are custom earplugs which require an earmold impression taken by an audiologist or hearing aid dispenser. A cotton or foam tip is placed deep into the ear canal to stop the impression material from traveling too far into the ear. Acrylic or silicone impression material is put into the ear canal and the helix portion of the outer ear, and the impressions are sent to a manufacturer to build the earplugs. In addition to potentially being more comfortable than standard inserts or headphones, there are also options for filters in order to protect the user from dangerous sounds but allow other sound in.
Finally, there are non-custom options which provide filtering technology to allow sounds of certain frequencies and/or intensities to pass through unchanged, but attenuate louder and/or more high frequency sounds. Sometimes it is a flat filter which attenuates all sounds equally to differing degrees, and others customize based on frequency.
You can do a quick test to understand why this frequency filtering might be beneficial. If you stick your fingers in your ears (gently), you’ll notice that higher pitched sounds are gone or significantly reduced, while you can still hear lower frequency sounds including your own voice, though it will likely sound slightly distorted. If it is important to continue hearing certain sounds or to preserve the fidelity of the incoming signal (such as with music) one of these options that lowers the volume of all incoming frequencies equally might be more appropriate.
What noise reduction rating is needed for woodworking?
Most hearing protection devices have a noise reduction rating (NRR) which will indicate the degree to which noise will be blocked; the higher the NRR, the more sound will be attenuated.
The NRR is presented in decibels; so, if you have hearing protection with an NRR of 29, that would be sufficient for noise up to 114 dB. This is something to factor in when making your choice. Some individuals choose to layer hearing protection, using inserts and muffs, in order to reach the necessary level of hearing protection. You can check published levels of your specific tools and select hearing protection with an adequate NRR.
You may choose to invest in more than one style depending on the tool, as certain woodworking techniques may be louder than others, and some may require some degree of hearing to provide auditory feedback that ensures that the machine is functioning properly.
Additionally, you may find some styles are more comfortable than others for sustained use versus short periods. Finally, some styles may be more durable and resistant to the sweat, dust and debris that would be expected in a woodworking environment. Muffs can be wiped clean after use and can be used with disposable covers if needed, while foam inserts may only be appropriate for a single use.
What are the best hearing protection for woodworking?
3M WorkTunes Connect Hearing Protection
These over-the-ear muffs have a 4.6-star rating on Amazon with nearly 35,000 reviews. They have noise cancelling technology and an NRR of 24 dB, thus offering sufficient protection against the majority of exposure during woodworking. They also have Bluetooth capability to provide streaming options if you desire to (and are safely able to) listen to music or other media during your woodworking. The only noted con is that the rubber material of the muffs might not be comfortable after several hours of use.
3M X2A Peltor X2A Ear Muffs
Another option from 3M with a 24 NRR, these lack the Bluetooth capability but boast a high comfort level due to the double headband design and well-designed ear cups. The cups are also replaceable, which makes it a great sanitary option or for those who are sharing the hearing protection among a few different users.
Flents Quite Please Foam Earplugs
These have a NRR of 29, but keep in mind that this is only if they are inserted correctly. It may take some practice, but you’ll want to roll them tightly and insert them deep into your ear canal and then wait for them to expand. These are a very affordable option and you don’t have to worry about them becoming dislodged from your ears during activity.
Howard Leight by Honeywell Laser Lite Foam Earplugs
Another foam insert option, these are also highly affordable and offer a 32 dB NRR. They are designed to fit all ear shapes and sizes and are intended to be single use for sanitary reasons. They are brightly colored to avoid getting lost, and have over 10,000 great reviews on Amazon.
Pro Ears Ultra Sleek Passive Hearing Protection
The ear cushions are made from comfortable leather and the headband is very soft and flexible. These offer an NRR of 26 and a 1-year warranty. These come in several different patterns and colors for those who want to express their creativity while protecting their hearing.
ISOTunes Bluetooth Ear Plugs
These may not be ideal for the loudest machinery, particularly if you plan to use the Bluetooth streaming function, but they do offer an NRR of 27 and are more lightweight than the muff style. They are at a slightly higher price point, too, but OSHA-compliant and comfortable. Some users who prefer an in-ear style may also appreciate the neck loop to avoid losing them.
Decibel Defense Professional Safety Ear Muffs
These have the highest NRR of 37 dB and are safe and comfortable for a range of activities, from woodworking to lawnmowing to shooting. These may be ideal for woodworkers who have other noisy hobbies. They are a good budget option and have over 10,000 positive reviews on Amazon, and they come in a range of bright color options.
How should I care for my hearing protection to make it last?
If you are using foam earplugs, they may be intended for single use. Depending on your wear time you may be able to get a second or third use, but only if they are still soft and supple. If they are not resuming their shape or have any visible cracks they should be discarded, and a new pair should be used. For custom earmold styles, check to see if there is wax or other debris after using, and wipe with a tissue or other soft cloth.
Try to avoid using alcohol or other chemicals which may break down the material. Muffs should be gently wiped as well, and you can consider using disposable covers particularly if there are several users of the devices. Your hearing protection should be stored in a safe, dry place. If you start to notice that your hearing protection is not providing the same level of attenuation that it did when new, it is time to replace it. If you experience tinnitus (ringing, buzzing) after a woodworking session, it is an indicator that the level of attenuation is not adequate. Your hearing protection likely needs to be replaced or supplemented.
Woodworking Ear Protection Takeaway
It is always a good idea to use hearing protection during woodworking, even if you are only working for a short time or if you suspect that your noise exposure is not at dangerous levels. Noise-induced hearing loss is a definite risk, as is persistent and bothersome tinnitus. You should always prioritize your physical safety when choosing your hearing protection.
Be aware of your surroundings, know whether the machine or tool you are working with requires some hearing to determine if it is functioning safely and appropriately. The Bluetooth streaming options available from some of the headphones may seem appealing, but it is not always safe to have distracting audio present.
Eleftheria's world revolves around sound - whether it's designing high-quality audio applications, crunching numbers in audio signal processing (DSP), decoding room acoustics, listening to music or crafting the latest hearing aid technology and new features. She has a professional career spanning over 15 years and a strong research record (over 40 articles and patents) and has been the driving force behind top-notch products at leading hearing aid and audio tech companies. But what really makes her enthusiastic is sharing what she knows. As an avid writer, she loves spreading the word on the science of hearing, hearing aids and health technologies. Her ultimate goal? To give people with hearing impairments the insights they need to live their best life.