Hearing protection: TIME is of the essence

Tania Swart, Audiologist (M. Communication Pathology)

Founder & CEO of FitSonic

Introduction

Different types of hearing protection are available on the market. Attenuation is the term used for noise reduction and is given as a number in decibels (dB). Appropriate hearing protection should provide sufficient attenuation in order to reduce the noise level to below the action level (noise level at the source). The assumed protection value will however only provide a guide if the hearing protection is well maintained, correctly fitted and worn for the entire time of exposure.

Exposure to loud sounds puts individuals at risk not only of hearing loss but other noise induced health problems such as insomnia, cardiovascular illnesses and psychophysiological effects. Typically, sound intensity above 85dB (when you are exposed to it for more than 8 hours per day) can lead to hearing loss by damaging the sensory hair cells within the inner ear. The higher the level of sound and the longer the duration, the greater the risk of permanent noise induced hearing loss (World Health Organization, World Report on Hearing 2021).

Several other factors, that influence the risk of noise induced hearing loss includes the use of muzzle brakes, the number of shots fired, the distance between shooters, the shooting environment, the choice of ammunition, the use of a suppressor and hearing protection fit and use (Meinke et al., 2017).

The use of properly fitted hearing protection devices is an effective measure in reducing the level of noise exposure especially when accompanied by appropriate training in their use. The correct hearing protection must be chosen for the purpose required and may depend on a few factors that are worth considering:

  • The time that is spent in noise
  • The decibel attenuation required
  • The need for communication
  • Comfort and personal preference

Issues with perspiration in hot and humid conditions

It is essential that individuals of all sporting disciplines (eg. recreational hunting, target/competitive/tactical shooting) wear hearing protection while shooting. According to Meinke et al., 2017 most recreational firearms (excluding small caliber 0.17 and 0.22 rifles and air rifles) generate a sound between 140 and 165dB peak SPL.

The acoustic characteristics of a gunshot from a recreational firearm are generally described as impulsive, peak SPL greater than 140dB, brief duration (<10 milliseconds outdoors) and high frequency with spectral peaks between 400 and 2000 Hz. Exposure to noise greater than 140dB (even after a single shot) can permanently damage the sensory hair cells within the inner ear in less than one second. The hair cells where high frequency sounds vibrate in the inner ear structure is usually affected first. This has a significant impact on a person’s ability to always hear speech clearly especially in the presence of background noise (Levey et al., 2012)

There are different types of hearing protection available including earplugs, earmuffs and electronic custom-made hearing protection:

  1. Earplugs (passive) fit into the ear canal itself. These may be disposable (most made from plastic foam), reusable (pre-moulded earplugs of soft flexible plastic), or permanent/long lasting (personally moulded or custom-made earplugs to fit the user’s ears – made of silicone).
  2. Earmuffs (passive / active) consist of soft ear cushions that create a seal around the ears and hard outer cups that are joined by a headband. The cushions must be large enough to fit over the ears. The seal may be disturbed if the earmuffs are worn over long hair, spectacles, hats/caps or hoods or if the headband is bent.
  3. Electronic custom-made hearing protection devices (passive / active) are custom made to fit the contours of the user’s ears and allow hearing protection from high level sounds while allowing transmission of other sounds like speech. Shooters who rely on detecting and localizing soft sounds of wildlife, or who wishes to follow the conversation in their surroundings while protecting their hearing from recreational firearm blasts may especially benefit from this type of electronic device.

In order to select the hearing protection best suited to your needs the likelihood to wear the hearing protection for the entire time exposed to hazardous noise levels (i.e., noise levels >85dB) should take priority. If hearing protection is not comfortable or worn correctly the entire time exposed, the actual amount of attenuation it provides drops markedly. Hearing protection that carries a CE marking meets the essential safety requirements as set out in the British Standard, BS EN 352 in terms of weight, size, durability and attenuation.

Attenuation is the term used for noise reduction and is given as a number in decibels (dB). The rating system used in Europe is SNR which relates to the differences in hearing levels without and with hearing protection. To find the effective

level of noise exposure in dBA, the attenuation provided by the hearing protection is subtracted from the measured noise level and that equals the effective Sound Pressure Level (SPL) at the ear.

Most recreational shooters demand audibility while engaged in their sport. Electronic hearing protection devices include the option of amplification of low-level sounds, which may be highly advantageous for sport shooters to hear fellow competitors, calls for safety and/or instructions and for hunters to hear approaching game and their professional hunter / trackers when providing guidance at a crucial moment in the hunt. It is imperative that all shooting sports individuals equip them with appropriate hearing protection to preserve their hearing and gain long term opportunities to enjoy their sport(s) safely without compromising on comfort or missing out on the conversation. It is never too late to start using hearing protection to prevent further damage.

Time is of the essence – get yours today.

References:

  • Daniel E. Noise and hearing loss: a review J SCH Health. 2007;77(5):225-31
  • Meinke D.K., Finan D.S & Tasko S. Prevention of Noise Induced Hearing Loss from Recreational Firearms Semin Hear. 2017 Nov; 38(4): 267-281. Published online 2017 Oct 10.
  • Occupational Audiometry, Monitoring and protecting hearing at work. Chapter 4: Personal hearing protection, 2005
  • World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe. Environmental noise guidelines for the European Region.2018. Available at: https://www.euro.who.int/_data/assests/pdf file/0008/383921/noise-guidelines-eng.pdf, accessed February 2022
  • Levey, S., Fligor, B.J., Ginocchi, C., Kagimbi, L. The effects on noise induced hearing loss on children and young adults: Contemporary issues in communication science and disorders, Volume 39, 76-83, 2012

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